Obituaries: Mario Puzo

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The Independent Culture
MARIO PUZO'S The Godfather at once perpetuated and amended the stereotypical notion that all Italian-Americans are members of the Mafia.

Unsurprisingly, many readers of The Godfather assumed Puzo had an insider's knowledge of the people and practices he portrayed with such ostensible authority, but in fact, when Puzo came to write the novel in his mid-forties, he knew no more about the Mafia than any of his fellow Americans whose surnames didn't terminate with a vowel. "I wrote The Godfather entirely from research," he admitted in an interview. "I never met a real honest- to-god gangster."

Puzo would have had the opportunity to do so, growing up as he did in New York's Hell's Kitchen, but he was kept on the straight and narrow by a formidable mother who, in the absence of Puzo's runaway father, singlehandedly raised a family of seven children. As a boy, Puzo stayed off the streets and immersed himself in organised sports and schoolwork; a voracious reader, he already knew as a teenager that he wanted to be a writer.

Puzo was forced to leave school early and go to work to help his mother, and found himself in a seeming dead-end job - as he explained years later, "I really thought I would spend the rest of my life as a railroad clerk". As with so many first or second generation immigrants of his era, rescue came in the unlikely form of the Second World War, for it took Puzo abroad (he served several years in post-war Germany) and then, through the generous provisions of the GI Bill, paid for his college education, at the New School in New York and at Columbia.

The young Puzo had serious literary ambitions. Working as a civil servant in New York, he began to place stories in magazines in the early 1950s and had his first novel, Dark Arena, published by Random House in 1955. Set in occupied Germany, the novel tells the story of an American veteran who returns to Germany to find his former mistress. The book was extremely well received - critics likened Puzo to Malamud, Bellow, even Hemingway - but sold very poorly.

Married and with five children to feed, Puzo soldiered on as a civil servant but continued to write, increasingly for magazines. His second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, which appeared in 1965, is a semi-autobiographical account of immigrant Italian-Americans in the New York of the 1920s and 1930s. Its central character, an indomitable matriarch rejoicing in the name of Lucia Santa Angeluzzi-Corbo, was closely based on Puzo's own mother, and is the organising figure around a rich social tapestry of a bygone immigrant world.

Again, Puzo was lauded by the critics, including his fellow Italian-American Gay Talese, who called The Fortunate Pilgrim "the best novel ever written about Italian immigrants in America". Again, however, the book sold in negligible quantities, and although Puzo had by now left the civil service to become a full-time magazine editor, there seemed little prospect of giving up the day job to write full time.

No richer now, but certainly wiser about the common disparity between quality fiction and sales, Puzo decided quite consciously to write a more "commercial" story. He submitted an outline for a novel about an Italian- American Mafia family first to his previous publisher, Atheneum, who were sniffy, then to Putnam, who were not. Out of this 10-page outline came the 450 pages of The Godfather, published in 1969.

It was from the start a success, becoming No 1 in the United States besteller lists and staying on them for well over a year. Translated throughout Europe and in Asia, the book sold over eight million copies in paperback even before the film of the book was released in 1972.

As with many massive bestsellers, the success of The Godfather defies rational or historical explanation. It was published at a time when American attention was focused on the Vietnam War, racial conflict in American life, and the prospect of the first man stepping on to the Moon. Why should a family saga with a cast bearing foreign-sounding names, following an immigrant lifestyle and doing terrible things to each other become such a popular hit?

Certainly much of the credit must go to Puzo's undeniable skill as a writer of narrative. In The Godfather he sets what is essentially a family saga against a backdrop of new wealth and power in the the putatively glamorous environs of New York City, Las Vegas and Palm Springs. It is a world more of money than taste, and in his evocation of the delights of the nouveaux riches Puzo is really only following the example of other "social" best-selling novelists such as Irving Wallace or Harold Robbins.

Where he differs from these producers of pabulum is in his very real ability to draw highly distinctive characters, particularly those of the Corleone family - the patriarch Don Vito Corleone and all his sons are memorable. The family's fortunes also neatly reflect larger societal shifts, especially as America entered a post-war era of corporate and sanitised prosperity. Against the immigrant backdrop of home-made wine and Sicilian pastries we watch the Don's son and heir, Michael, attend an Ivy League college and become the modern, respectable face of traditional mobsterdom.

Clearly the humanisation of the Corleone family struck a chord in an America that had lost touch with family life, though to romanticise this family would be to ignore the the sinister activities which are never very far beneath the surface of their more glamorous social world - lurking behind the perfumed excesses of a Las Vegas showgirl is the cloacal aroma of a commissioned garrotting. And even this so-called humanisation perpetuated the traditional view of Italian-Americans as steeped in crime - to the fury of many of Italian descent trying to emerge from the confines of such stereotypes.

The extraordinary success of the film version of the book, on which Puzo collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola, only served to re-emphasise the associations of Mafia, family, and oaths of silence (the great tradition of Omerta) in the public mind, especially when this movie spawned two equally successful sequels. Puzo himself worked on all three Godfather films, as well as on many other movies, including two of the Superman films. He wrote several other novels, including one finished just before his death which will be published next year.

A keen bon viveur with a great love of Italian food, Puzo was also an enthusiastic gambler and a well-known figure at the higher-rolling tables in Las Vegas. His great success went more to his stomach than to his head, and latterly he was commonly described as looking like an out-of-shape middleweight boxer. His friends composed a wide-ranging circle of known and not-known and he was famously loyal to long-time pals, who included the novelist Joeseph Heller and the Los Angeles attorney Bert Fields.

He was, as his friend Fields noted, quintessentially American, for Puzo represents a rags-to-riches story that is pure Americana in its resonance. The irony in this, however, is that Puzo's influence was greatest in the perpetuation of ethnic perceptions which seem increasingly outdated and untrue to life. Something of a mini-industry in itself, The Godfather spawned an entire generation of Mafia stories, which tempered the time- honoured violence of earlier treatments such as Eliot Ness's The Untouchables with insight into the supposedly more attractive traits of mobsters.

Movies as different as Miller's Crossing, Goodfellas, and Prizzi's Honor all have discernible roots in the original phenomenon of Mario Puzo's novel. And for all his success in updating the figures of the American mafiosi, Puzo unwittingly or not continued to confine Italian- Americans to caricatures that were just as much cardboard cut-outs as those of any tommy-gun-toting Chicago crony of Al Capone.

Mario Puzo, writer: born New York 15 October 1920; married 1946 Erika Broske (died 1978; three sons, two daughters); died New York 2 July 1999.