Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mario Puzo’s Mafia novel

The reshaping of American literary culture from the early 1950’s to the early 1970’s might be captured in one historical image. James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, the massive blockbuster about the Regular Army in the last months before Pearl Harbor, was awarded the 1952 National Book Award in fiction. Not quite two decades later, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was not even nominated. Joyce Carol Oates was honored for Them, her long aimless narrative of poor whites adrift in riot-torn Detroit.

Puzo had treated the Mafia in his novel in much the same way that Jones had treated the army—as an autonomous social institution with its pressures for conformity, where there is no place for a man with any real integrity.

From this it does not follow, however, that Puzo’s theme is what Gay Talese described in the Washington Post in reviewing the novel:

Whether men’s ambitions are fulfilled in the arena of politics or banking, business or crime, it makes little difference—the rules are often the same; it is a game of power and money; might makes right; and the most brutal acts are easily justified in the name of necessity and honor. Governments fight world wars for honor, drop atomic bombs for peace, stage bloody brawls for Christ; and the Mafia, on a mini-scale, acts out similar aggressions for similar goals—profit, prestige and justice as they see it.The Godfather is not, in short, an anti-Vietnam War novel in disguise. Rather, it is a novel that belongs to the same class as From Here to Eternity. It adopts the techniques of literary naturalism—the detailed social observations, the tone of moral detachment, the long sojourn among an underclass—to tell the story of an institution not immediately associated with the degradation of man.*

And like Jones, Puzo fills his pages with man after man—dozens of them, including the occasional woman—all of whom are distinct individuals, with individual histories and traits. No character is introduced without a backstory and a chapter to himself. This is the method of the blockbuster. In 1952 it was possible to win a major American literary award with a naturalistic blockbuster; by 1970 a novel had to be a “holy vessel of the imagination” to receive official recognition.

If it is read at all any more, Puzo’s The Godfather is probably read as the “novelization” of Francis Ford Coppola’s famous film of the same title, which was rated the third greatest American film of all time. It took Coppola three years to bring the novel to the screen (or about the same length of time that Fred Zinnemann took to film From Here to Eternity). According to literary gossip, Puzo molded and trimmed his work-in-progress to satisfy the demands of Paramount Pictures. If there is any truth to the rumor, however, it is startling that the most important scene in the novel, in which “Don Corleone gave the speech that would be long remembered” and in which “he coined a phrase that was to become as famous in its way as Churchill’s Iron Curtain”—the phrase that inspired the dust jacket illustration by S. Neil Fujita that was reproduced on the movie posters—only makes it into the film version in heavily abbreviated form.

After the Don is shot on the streets outside Genco Olive Oil, after Michael Corleone guns down the police captain Mark McCluskey and the drug smuggler Virgil Sollozzo, after Sonny Corleone has been murdered in retaliation, Vito Corleone calls a meeting of New York’s Five Families with “invitations to Families all over the United States” in order to sue for peace. The meeting is filmed by Coppola, and so too is the Don’s speech. But its central passage is not recorded:Let me say that we [in the Mafia] must always look to our interests. We are all men who have refused to be fools, who have refused to be puppets dancing on a string pulled by the men on high. . . . Who is to say we should obey the laws they make for their own interest and to our hurt? Sonna cosa nostra . . . these are our affairs. We will manage our world for ourselves because it is our world, cosa nostra. And so we have to stick together to guard against outside meddlers. Otherwise they will put the ring in our nose as they have put the ring in the nose of all the millions of Neapolitans and other Italians in this country.Coppola does not include this speech, because it does not express his message. Coppola’s message is delivered by Al Pacino (in “a part too demanding for him,” according to the late Stanley Kauffmann). When Michael Corleone returns from hiding in Sicily after the murders of Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey, he finally goes to see his old flame Kay Adams.

Michael tells her that he is working for his father now. “But I thought you weren’t going to become a man like your father,” Kay says; “you told me.” “My father's no different from any other powerful man,” Michael replies—“any man who’s responsible for other people, like a senator or president.” “Do you know how naïve you sound?” Kay asks with a smile; “senators and presidents don’t have men killed.” “Oh,” Michael says; “who’s being naïve, Kay?” Or, in other words, Gay Talese had it right after all. The Mafia differs from the U.S. government only in the extent and reach of its power. This is a view that can be enjoyed by libertarian and political radical alike, but it is not the view of Puzo’s novel.

In the novel, Michael’s speech to Kay is rather different:You’ve got the wrong idea of my father and the Corleone Family. I’ll make a final explanation and this one will be really final. My father is a businessman trying to provide for his wife and children and those friends he might need someday in a time of trouble. He doesn’t accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself, a man of extraordinary force and character. What you have to understand is that he considers himself the equal of all those great men like Presidents and Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices and Governors of the States. He refuses to accept their will over his own. He refuses to live by rules set up by others, rules which condemn him to a defeated life. But his ultimate aim is to enter that society with a certain power since society doesn’t really protect its members who do not have their own individual power. In the meantime he operates on a code of ethics he considers far superior to the legal structures of society.I’d be tempted to characterize this view as fundamental to Italian fascism if Benito Mussolini had not been an intense and triumphant foe of the Mafia and its “separate authority.” At all events, it is not a view that is affirmed by Mario Puzo. In a small passage tucked away in a seemingly unimportant scene, Puzo makes his own view clear in his own voice. In contrasting Sonny Corleone to his brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi, Puzo writes that Sonnywas a man who could, with the naturalness of an animal, kill another man, while [Carlo] himself would have to call up all his courage, all his will, to commit murder. It never occurred to Carlo that because of this he was a better man than Sonny Corleone, if such terms could be used;a better man, even if he also beats his wife. (Puzo could not get away with such a distinction in 2013.) The mere fact that Carlo Rizzi recognizes a moral authority that is separate from his own, if only in restraining him from murder, means that he is a moral advance over Sonny. The Mafiosi may consider themselves “far superior” to the rest of society, but by Puzo’s lights, they are lesser men.

Puzo’s prose rarely flashes, but it rarely loses it balance either. The Godfather may not have been the best American novel of 1969, or even the third best (although it is easily better than Oates’s Them and two other novels nominated for the National Book Award, including Leonard Michaels’s Going Places and Kurt Vonnegut’s dull and tendentious Slaughterhouse-Five), but it remains a novel worth reading, if only for its ambition of copia or completeness.

The Godfather is a full picture of the Mafia, but it does not glamorize it. Puzo represents the Mafia as the social institutionalization of violence. This is not an accidental feature of “refusing to live by rules set up by others,” but its very essence. Nor does Puzo suggest a superficial and sloganeering moral equivalence between the Mafia and governments or businesses. His Mafia is a unique institution that uniquely degrades men, when it does not murder them.

* Raffi Magarik, a graduate student in English at Berkeley and a regular reader of A Commonplace Blog, writes to register his unhappiness with this phrase: an institution not immediately associated with the degradation of man. I admit to not being entirely pleased with it myself. What I was thinking is that (a.) prior to Puzo’s novel, the Mafia was not usually thought of as a social institution, and (b.) in Mafia fiction, it is more usually associated with beatings and murder than with human degradation (and certainly not the degradation of the men who become Mafiosi).

Magarik mentions W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar (1929), perhaps the only earlier American novel about the Mafia. It chronicles the rise of Rico (a character modeled on Al Capone) from mob gunman to mob chieftain. From first to last, though, Rico remains a sociopath. He is vain about his hair, proud of his ability with a gun, and fair in splitting the take from robberies with his subordinates. His rise to power does not degrade him, however; he seizes an opportunity and holds on to power through violence. Puzo was the first American novelist who understood the Mafia as something different from a mere criminal gang—a complex social organism with a “separate authority” and its own code of ethics. His Mafia, in fact, differs only in social detail from James Jones’s army.

Magarik concludes, rather brilliantly, in my opinion, that your politics may determine whether you prefer Puzo’s Mafia or Coppola’s. Coming to the novel and film from my left, he concludes that “the Coppola is better than the Puzo just because the mob seems, on its own terms, too easy a target for naturalistic critique.” As a conservative, I prefer Puzo’s moral vision.


PMH said...

I think that Coppola's is more terse, poetic, and powerful. Pity he didn't serve as Puzo's editor. Puzo is banal after Coppola.

Palinurus said...

I don’t think Coppola’s vision is summed up in Michael’s speech to Kay. I think Michael’s speech, like the Don’s puppet-on-a-string speech, are attempts at self-justification and persuasion. In the end, they’re indicative of a sort of tragic blindness.

Coppola introduces his main themes in the movie’s opening scenes – the wedding of the Don’s daughter and, in particular, the mortician’s wedding-day request that the Don provide “justice” for the mortician’s daughter. The movie is about justice. And it is their competing views of justice that distinguish the worlds of the wise guys and citizens, as well as the worlds of the family and the state. These two worlds exist side-by-side, like the visible and the dark sides of the moon.

The two types of justice are contrasted in the experience of the mortician. He had turned his back on the Don and his world; when his daughter was disfigured fighting off a rape, the mortician did not turn to the Don but rather, like a good citizen, to the police and the courts for justice. But for the mortician as a father, the justice meted out by the courts – suspended sentences! – did not fit the crime. The state does not, as the mortician as father would like, avenge the family honor, or does so only imperfectly. But as a father, the mortician wants vengeance, an eye for an eye or even a head for an eye. The state metes out a colder, more calculated sort of justice, one that seeks to do right by all interested parties, and especially the community as a whole by ending the conflict, and that is typified by the sort of calculating and factor-weighing that goes into the calculation of a prison sentence.

The outrage of his daughter painfully brings home to the mortician the shortcomings of the sort of justice meted out by the courts and of citizenship; he wishes to return to the world of the family and the vendetta. Michael will run this entire circuit. He starts out as the son who wanted to turn his back on the Don by having nothing to do with his father’s business, going off to college, and then going off to fight for his country; because the state could not protect his father, he would return to the family, and fighting for and on behalf of his own. His cynical speech that this is the only world there is is the dramatic counterpoint of the mortician’s effort to turn his back on the world of the Don. And the result will be similar. The unfolding of Michael’s story will be that he must do more and more violence to his family as its godfather and is locked into a cycle of never-ending violence, typical of the world of the vendetta.

The movie interweaves these two worlds and their competing views of justice to issue a double-sided warning to both of them. On the one hand, it warns against the too-rosey hopefulness of those who believe that the atavistic underworld of family, family honor, and bloody-minded vengeance as justice can ever be put behind us; as the mortician shows, these passions lie sleeping in every citizen’s heart and, should the state fail to give them their due, will awaken. Yet at the same time, the movie warns against a wise-guy cynicism, whether pre- or post-modern, that would deny that there could ever be any other sort of justice, that men or society could ever aspire to anything more than a narrow, brutal self-interest. As Michael shows, this sort of over-reverence of the family, or diminution of the state, is inimical to the family – it swallows up its young, as Michael himself was.

Palinurus said...

As you no doubt know, Coppola was also involved in the production of a movie based on the other, sort of gangster movie that has occupied your thought, the Great Gatsby.

Is this just a coincidence? Or does it reflect a broader theme or affinities of interest?

Mike said...

The later sequels penned by others trying to imitate Puzo had the same problem. They tried to say that what the character was doing was morally equivalent to others.

Paul Milenkovic said...

The way The Godfather romanticizes the Mafia is indeed in the portrayal of Don Corleone, and especially his personal morals and code of honor.

The severed horse's head-in-the-bed is one of the most gruesome scenes, both in print and in the movie. I don't know if people remember that means of persuasion was in service of getting Johnny Fontaine a part in a movie.

After the Don's emissary Tom Hagen is at an impass with the studio chief character regarding the casting of Johnny Fontaine, the Don asks him over the phone whether the studio chief is "Sicillian", meaning, does he really have the toughness to back up his bluster?

Tom Hagen answers "no" without revealing in that conversation why he came to that judgement. Hagen observes that the studio chief has a "casting couch" for a child actress, making him a pedophile. He does not communicate this directly to the Don, but he instinctively knows how the Don would use such information in deciding how to gain advantage over the studio chief.

The Don may be a murderer, but his killing is "justifiable homicide" in the context of his "cosa nostra", his alternative system of governance. Being a pedophile, however, is not only a moral outrage, it is a sign of weakness and an indication that the studio chief will give in to the right pressure -- the book expresses his outrage and fury over the killing of his prize horse, but there is a sense, that at least I got, that if he went to the police, no, if he went to the court of public opinion, his molestation of child actresses would become known. To protect that secret, not only does he not go to the police, he gives Johnny Fontaine the part, and he covers up the death of his prized horse.

That said, I think The Godfather indeed romanticizes the Mafia by glamorzing such a moral code -- I am a killer, yes, but I am not a pedophile.

It has been argued that the victims of various Mafia schemes are "legitimate" business people with a larcenous streak and the persistence of organized crime follow from it not having innocent victims.

On the other hand, I get the feeling that the "Men of Honor" may not be nearly as honorable as they are portrayed in The Godfather or other fictional depictions of organized crime. I think these men were and are petty thugs. That historically speaking, a Mafia Don started and fought a gang war by refusing to bow to peer pressure to help with the "French Connection" importing of heroin is a fiction.

Dave Pinsen said...

The part of Puzo's novel that always struck me as the strongest condemnation of the mafia was Michael's exile in Sicily. Not so much the constant threat of murder, but Michael's decision not to let the local physician operate on his busted nose. Michael thinks little of the physician's ability because he knows the local godfather has the power to get an incompetent man a medical license.

With respect to Puzo versus Coppola, it's worth remembering that Puzo's novel supplied the best material for The Godfather 2 as well.

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