- 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.
In fact, what this proliferation of links between the worlds of crime and entertainment and business suggests is not at all the critical correctness that Puzo wants to claim, but something much hazier and more complicated. His ironic defence of crime was not a defence, but it wasn’t a simple attack either; and if The Godfather didn’t just glorify the Mafia, it did a fair amount of unmistakable glorifying all the same. ‘Nobody has more family values than the Italians,’ Puzo says in a recent interview, ‘and that’s why they’re so good at being the Mafia.’ This is a little broad, and he used not to mention the Mafia at all, only families with Italian names and a fondness for pasta and mozzarella. But the remark still cuts several ways, like the novels and the movies. Italian-Americans preserve the very idea of the family for us, and organised crime saves us from random violence. There is no place safer, the mythology goes, than New York’s Little Italy, or South Philadelphia; no killing there except by contract, and no mugging at all because the muggers are too scared. What’s interesting is the implication that we are more afraid of randomness than we are of violence, and I think the ritualised orderliness of the world of the first Godfather film had a lot to do with its immense success. Even here, though, in Puzo’s casual remarks, there is another edge. Family values are what make people ruthless, and corrupt; or more brutally, the great family value is ruthlessness. Puzo also has a good grip on how much of this is fantasy, always claiming that he knows nothing about the Mafia except what he learned through research. A little disingenuous perhaps. Maybe not. How would we tell? ‘I know The Godfather is a popular book amongst Mafia guys, because it presents them the way they like to see themselves ... It also makes them seem a lot smarter than they –’ Puzo’s companion interrupts, because she feels it may not be too smart to keep saying this.
There is another reason, more intimately connected to these particular stories, why the last Don can’t be the last. Each Don wants to be the last, wants his descendants to merge, after his death, into American respectability. The Family will be just a family, only more powerful than most. ‘And now the Clericuzio family was at the height of its power, seemingly safe from attack. Soon it would disappear into the legal fabric of society and become invulnerable.’ Like the reverse of the Victorian patriarch, or like Orson Welles’s Mr Arkadin, the Don wants to leave no legacy, to erase the blood and violence and illegality which formed his own career. This is why Michael Corleone is supposed to stay out of his father’s business, to become respectable, a senator maybe, or the governor of a state; and the whole plot of two movies concerns his reluctant, and then not so reluctant, embrace of what seems to him an inescapable destiny. ‘In five years,’ Michael tells the woman he is about to marry, ‘the Corleone family is going to be completely legitimate.’ Later she reminds him of this, saying: ‘that was seven years ago.’ The Last Don is full of the same yearning, tied to the idea of the legalising of gambling all across America, and including all sports. ‘The Don knew he would not live to see that glorious day, but what a world it would be for his children. The Clericuzio would be the equivalent of Renaissance princes.’ Of course, it’s because they are already the equivalent of Renaissance princes in their methods of disposing of their enemies that this glorious day is never going to come. Or can only come not when the criminals become respectable, but when respectable society recognises its criminality. The Last Don, unlike The Godfather, suggests that the Don’s descendants, or at least one great-nephew, might make it out from the embrace of the Family, but he has several murders on his slate, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a sequel showed his escape to be short-lived. What makes the second Godfather movie (1974) so compelling, so remote from the slightly mawkish moments in the first, where that lovable old Marlon Brando collapses to his death while playing with a grandchild in the garden, is the sense of deeper and deeper implication in horror. Godfather III (1990) is a different story altogether, a wandering tale of conspiracy and disaster, a movie which is not only about lost meanings and loyalties, but feels lost itself – although in a way which every now and then comes back to haunt you, and Coppola always makes movies which look like movies, rather than advertisements that got out of hand. In Godfather II, when Michael Corleone’s chief adviser asks why he feels he has to kill everyone, Michael replies with a kind of weary righteousness, as if the thing were too obvious to need saying: ‘I don’t feel I have to kill everybody, Tom. Just my enemies.’ Some staggering things are unspoken here: that Michael knows for sure who his enemies are; that killing them is the simple and appropriate answer to their existence; that this is something he feels. To complete the mood, Coppola offers us a visual reminder of Don Corleone’s death. A man wearing casual clothes plays with a child, talks about fishing. He is Fredo, Michael’s disloyal brother, the child is Michael’s. But Fredo is not going to die a natural death in a garden. He is going to be taken out on a lake and killed, on Michael’s orders.
Both of the first movies (shot by Gordon Willis) look wonderful: interiors full of gold and brown, shady characters caught in the half-light, murmuring in corridors; glittering exteriors, all sunlight and celebration, songs, christenings, weddings, crowds. The dialogue would be portentous and dull if it were not all delivered with such persuasive sorrow: no Jacobean murderers are ever as reluctant as this. This has a lot to do with Coppola’s astonishing troupe of actors: Robert Duvall, James Caan, Thalia Shire, Diane Keaton, Al Pacino. They make you feel not that this is the world of the Mafia, but that a dark world of family values, of murder and jollity and food and sentiment, can only be like this; and they make almost every gangster movie made since then look like a too brightly coloured copy. It is in this world that we can crosscut, in the first film, between a christening and the various items of a massacre; or be shown, right at the end of the same film, Diane Keaton, as Al Pacino/Michael Corleone’s wife, in profile at the front of the shot while at the back of the frame, through a door, in a room lit like a depressed Vermeer, Pacino is approached by his vassals, who kiss his hand. She is left out of this, and so are we. The door is closed in our faces. But it is in the second film that this grim perspective comes into its own.
This is not, finally, a movie about becoming respectable, or even failing to become respectable, and it is not about the value of loyalty in a crazy, cheating world. It is about power, represented most clearly as the power to have people executed, but clearly implying many other modes of dominion. In Pacino’s pudgy young face and his brooding, but authoritative, pronouncements, which are always delayed, as if talking was a problem because you never had anything to say that wasn’t a death sentence, power is presented as an intolerable but unavoidable burden, a dreary, difficult job. Of course, we import loads of glamour into this very picture, but the glamour is not giving Michael Corleone any pleasure. Nothing is. So we have a portrait of something like absolute power wielded only for its own sake, and in this context the murders Michael keeps ordering raise a question that is scarcely a moral question at all. It rests on a moral question – it’s certainly illegal to kill in the way that Michael’s men do, but is it wrong? – but then looks away from it. What is the nature of the horror Michael has sunk himself into? The movie ends with a flashback to earlier, happier days, when Michael was expecting to escape this destiny and his brother Sonny was still alive. We ask what went wrong, of course. And then we ask what it means to have lost the sense that there are things you can’t do. At one moment late in this film, Michael and his men are planning to kill a heavily guarded gangster, already in custody. Someone says they can’t do it, it would be like trying to kill the President (a possibility actually canvassed in The Last Don). Michael/Pacino says with slow sad emphasis: ‘if anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anybody.’ Is it far-fetched to see in this great line, not only the hypocritical sorrow of a major Mafioso, but the voice of American world power saying what it thinks but hardly ever states? Saddam Hussein is proof that the claim is not entirely true, that history teaches us other things as well. But the way Americans (and not only Americans) talk about getting rid of him suggests that many people want to have learned Michael Corleone’s lesson, and they are not as glum about it as he is.
‘I like the book,’ Puzo said of The Godfather. ‘I wished like hell I’d written it better.’ He’s obviously stopped wishing for such things. The Last Don is a book in which hearts race in terror, perfect bodies come together like magnets, people toss and turn for hours, hold their head high, follow their destiny, find themselves in the full flower of youthful maleness, know the time is ripe, and, rather weirdly in this context, have hours to kill. And the women, Dio mio. They have hair the colour of honey, lips the colour of red wine, their blouses swell invitingly, and if you’re lucky reveal rising breasts with their raspberry nipples spun of sugar. One woman has the face of an elfin blond witch, another an intelligence in her eyes which represents that vibration from some invisible instrument of inner being. The second woman seems to melt and become part of the mist over the ocean behind her. We are still in the world of fantasy, of course; but these fantasies seem particularly dog-eared and hapless. Or just lazy.
On the other hand, there are moments in The Last Don when the writing is quite different, and in almost every case it has to do with casual insights or distinctions. I like the idea of a ‘dilettante pimp’, or of the man who almost trusted someone in his life. ‘Good but unimportant money’ is what a well-known writer makes in Hollywood. This is perhaps like the wine that is described as ‘not super but very good’, and the limo which is ‘a big stretch job but by no means luxurious’. That means just a computer and fax and a cellular phone. A woman writer in Hollywood has her own sense of the place: ‘Claudia studied the men. Two pricks and a dope, not an unusual trio in Hollywood.’ The same writer knows that a screenplay with feminist leanings needs to be ‘coated with more basic ingredients’, and I’m not sure how much irony (hers or Puzo’s) gets into the following list: ‘such as greed, sex, murder, and a belief in humanity’. One killer makes a good joke to another: neither of them is ruthless enough to run a movie studio. The following distinction is not a joke, but it is almost an epigram and it makes you think: ‘He had never done torture. There were really no secrets so important that justified that kind of work. When you killed a man, you merely separated him from this world so that he could do you no harm.’
The Last Don is broadly plotted, full of echoes of The Godfather, as if longing for a remake. When Michael Corleone accepts his position in the family business because someone has tried to kill his father, he says to Don Vito: ‘I’m with you now. I’m with you.’ When Croccifixio De Lena, conveniently known as Cross, accepts his first killing mission from his father, he says, ‘I’m with you,’ and we are told that ‘for the first time in his young life he felt the ache of a world that was to be lost’ Don Domenico himself, although rather sterner in respect of his family, since he does nothing to prevent some of them being killed off, plays his role as if he thought he was Brando playing another role. There is a certain amount of hokey lore, explaining the difference between unrefusable offers which end up as Communions, where the body is never found, or Confirmations, where it is. Maybe this is the fruit of research or inside knowledge, but it sounds like a piece of art waiting for life to imitate it. Much of the novel is set in Hollywood, most of the rest in Las Vegas. There are scenes in Long Island, at the Don’s palatial hang-out. A number of murders take place because influential people want them to happen, and their not quite expressed wishes are understood by the right people – namely the Family. The brutal husband of a movie star is killed in such a way that it looks as if he had committed suicide, with an impeccably forged note as back-up. The killer of a young woman, released on a plea of insanity, is killed at the unspoken request of her father. The action centres on Cross, the Family’s man in Vegas, and his love for the movie star, Athena Aquitaine, after he has obligingly disposed of her husband. There is politics. The avenged father is governor of the state of Nevada, later senator, and part of the Clericuzio’s plan to get gambling legalised. Having got the hang of requesting murders without saying anything, he is the one who moots the killing of the President, who will not sign the pro-gambling bill.
There is also an old feud, a great Sicilian shadow over these adventures. The Clericuzio won the war against the Santadio back in the Sixties, but at what cost? Don Domenico’s daughter, Rose Marie, has fits of madness, all the others have secrets. When the ghosts return to haunt everyone, the novel ends, and it is part of Puzo’s skill that he makes the Don seem both the manipulator and the victim of these events; that he evokes, however faintly, a genuine sorrow beneath the Don’s stony lack of repentance. The Don, in fact, seems to have much the same view of the relations between crime and society that Puzo was floating in his long-ago essay. Crime continues to pay, because it is virtually everywhere. A prominent Mexican, brother of the former President Salinas de Gotari, is currently on trial for the wonderfully conceived offence of inexplicable enrichment. Reporting this story, the New York Times laconically noted that you cannot be tried for this crime in the US, or rather that this is not on the books there.
Don Domenico, on his arrival in the country, was much impressed by the basic maxim of American justice: ‘that it was better that a hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished.’ ‘Struck almost dumb by the beauty of the concept, he became an ardent patriot. America was his country. He would never leave America.’ The liberal defence of the possibility of innocence becomes a gambler’s paradise, where the odds look to be a hundred to one in favour of a guilty man getting off. The land of opportunity. Don Domenico is also dazed, no doubt, by the sheer stupidity and laxness of the idea that anyone who needed killing could escape being killed. That’s not how anyone does business in these movies and novels, and they order things differently in Sicily.