- The Last Don by Mario Puzo
Heinemann, 482 pp, £15.99, October 1996, ISBN 0 434 60498 4
‘We were the last romantics,’ Yeats said, but he spoke too soon. We might feel the same about the situation proposed by the title of Mario Puzo’s new novel, now sitting comfortably at number four in the New York Times bestseller list. Don Domenico Clericuzio, the ageing mobster grandee in this book, is said to have led his family to ‘the very heights of power’, using only the instruments of ‘a Borgia-like cruelty and a Machiavellian subtleness, plus solid American business know-how’. He has also probably watched the Godfather movies several hundred times. How could we ever tire of such a figure, what would stop his replication? The idea of the last Don is like the idea of the last cliché.
There are more complicated questions in the notion of lastness, though. What if organised crime, as not only cynics have said, is coterminous with social organisation? Puzo’s The Godfather, published in 1969, had an epigraph from Balzac: ‘Behind every great fortune there is a crime.’ Behind quite a lot of small fortunes, too, was Puzo’s implication, and behind plenty of failed attempts at making large or small money. After the success of the book, and of Coppola’s first Godfather movie (1972), Puzo felt that for many people he had been too ‘oblique’ in his irony. They had somehow thought he was ‘glorifying the Mafia’, when he was really offering a searing attack on corruption. He reprinted in evidence a 1966 essay called ‘How Crime Keeps America Healthy, Wealthy, Cleaner and More Beautiful’. This is a very funny piece which sardonically argues that policemen, bureaucrats and bookkeepers on the take are good for the economy and the social order. These people
do not spend their ‘black’ money on wine, women and song. They do not roister and revel. They are solid members of society. The money goes for a new house in the suburbia where the kids can grow up untainted by crime-breeding slums. The money goes for college tuition that will transform prospective welfare clients into society-enriching doctors, engineers and certified accountants ... These people pour adrenalin into our social system. They pay their bank debts and the bloodcurdling interest attached. They do not drink or fornicate to excess, and they support our policy in Vietnam.
Of course, there is a large loophole in this case, but Puzo closes it smartly. ‘It must be said at once that not all criminals benefit society: muggers who smash old girls on the head to snatch purses; kidnap artists and stick-up guys; rampaging rapists ...’ But these are just troublemakers, he says, an unproductive minority.
‘Not all criminals benefit society.’ The formulation neatly suggests that most criminals do, which is not so much a realistic proposition as it is an old satirical move, going back at least as far as The Beggar’s Opera and Jonathan Wild. The satirist affects not to see the difference between criminals and respectable people, and we are supposed to wonder if the difference is as secure as we thought. The same move, although less satirical and more romantic in mood, structures most gangster movies, which allegorise the world of business whether they want to or not, and the connection is eerily alive in Frank Sinatra’s version of ‘Mack the Knife’, where he sings of making an offer you can’t refuse. There is almost too much to unravel here. The song comes from (the English translation of) Brecht’s re-creation of Gay’s play, and has been separately sung by, among others, Lotte Lenya, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Bobbie Darin. None of these performers mentions an unrefusable offer, nor could they, since their recordings predate The Godfather, where the line appears several times, memorably, in the first film, in connection with the possibility for a movie producer ‘that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract’. Sinatra mentions the earlier singers, and talks about the offer you can’t refuse in relation to the pleasures of singing with Quincy Jones’s band. We can scarcely miss the slightly sinister joke, though; and for good measure Sinatra did famously become Puzo’s enemy because he thought he had been portrayed in the novel and the movie as the wimpish Johnny Fontane, who owes his success to Don Corleone’s sense of family and willingness to make certain kinds of offer.