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6 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

Attention mafianados! at the age of 75, and more than 20 years after Don Vito Corleone and the rest of the Godfather gang abandoned the page for a more glamorous life on the screen, Mario Puzo has started a new family. The Last Don (Random House; 482 pages; $25.95) introduces the Clericuzios, a crime clan based in the Bronx, New York, and at the peak of its dark powers. Fortunately, Puzo too is in top form.

“He definitely views this book as a comeback with a vengeance,” says his editor, Jonathan Karp. Five years ago, Puzo had quadruple-bypass surgery, followed by a long and gloomy convalescence. His book in progress, a saga about the Borgias, stalled. He thought he might never write again. But transpose the Machiavellian city-state of the Borgias to a fortress in the Bronx, add a summer palace on Long Island and playgrounds in Las Vegas and Hollywood, and–Ecco!–the godfather of Mafia fiction is back in business.

The timing isn’t bad either. In summer even serious readers beg to have their disbelief suspended, and The Last Don obliges. It is a headlong entertainment, bubbling over with corruption, betrayals, assassinations, Richter-scale romance and, of course, family values. As in its famous predecessor, unquestioned loyalty, unexamined cash flow and expedient ways of dealing with competition are givens, but this story is set in the ’80s–and the slick Clericuzios make the Corleones seem as if they just got off the boat. Gone from the new novel are the entry-level rackets and suspiciously profitable olive-oil business. Instead, family head Don Domenico Clericuzio rules an Exxon of organized crime aided by a son with a degree from Wharton. All the messiness of securing market share is in the past. Years before, the Clericuzios eliminated their main rivals, the Santadios, in one quick and nasty operation. Imagine a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet in which the Capulets throw a wedding and then slaughter the Montagues before dessert.

Imagine anything you like, and in all probability you would still be hard-pressed to keep up with Puzo’s devilish invention. There is scarcely a deadly sin or narrative device that he does not plant in his tale. No other popular writer mixes suds and satire with such disarming effect.

The backdrop of The Last Don may be operatic (“God’s world was a prison in which man had to earn his daily bread, and his fellow man was a fellow beast, carnivorous and without mercy”), but the setting and characters are commedia dell’arte. Puzo playfully admires the aging Don Dom. “Early on,” he writes, “he had been told the famous maxim of American justice, that it was better that a hundred guilty men go free than that one innocent man be punished. Struck almost dumb by the beauty of the concept, he became an ardent patriot.”

The novel’s unwritten law is that time eventually earns a dispensation for past sins. Tough old pros like Alfred Gronevelt, official owner of the Clericuzio-controlled Xanadu Hotel in Las Vegas, and ruthless Eli Marrion, geriatric head of LoddStone Studios, are, like the Don, the novel’s honored guests. Puzo’s younger heroes are fewer but conspicuous: the Don’s Adonis-like grandnephew Croccifixio (“Cross”) De Lena and his film-goddess girlfriend, Athena Aquitane. The book’s fools and villains are ruled by passions, impulses and grotesque egos. A degenerate gambler and loudmouthed deadbeat lurches obnoxiously toward his inevitable fate. A hit man, perversely named Dante, wears gaudy Renaissance-style hats and takes too much pleasure in his work.

The marriage of the Mafia and movies provides Puzo with his longest-running gag. In scene after scene the gentlemen from New York and Las Vegas have more ethics and common courtesy than most Hollywood bosses. Puzo, of course, has a few scores to settle. In 1974 he went to the mattresses with Universal Studios over his share of profits for writing Earthquake. The experience probably explains why Bobby Bantz, LoddStone’s second in command, is a fulsome repository of foul behavior and slippery business practices. Among them is the willfully complicated gross-and-net game that fattens those on top and leaves naive scriptwriters out of pocket. Puzo takes his vendetta to comic climax when a novelist turned LoddStone hack has to kill himself to get his money. That he sets aside his multiple suicide notes for a rewrite is the sort of black-humor icing that tops off much of this highly anecdotal read.

Three Cheers for Hypocrisy would make a suitable subtitle for The Last Don. “Mario writes about the hearts of thieves and thievery in our hearts. He is fascinated by the moral ironies in life,” says Random House editor Karp. Puzo’s own are no exception. Before he wrote The Godfather, Puzo spent years vainly trying to gamble his way out of debt. Eventually crime paid, but not in the way he thought it would.

Puzo now keeps his wagering within the family. “He acts as bookie for his children, who will gamble on sports events, and he will take whatever side they don’t want,” says friend Speed Vogel, a retired businessman and co-author of Joseph Heller’s memoir, No Laughing Matter.

Clearly Puzo understands that the best–perhaps only–reason to be conservative is that he has a lot to conserve. “The one great mystery that would never be solved was why very rich men still wasted time gambling to win money they did not need,” he writes in The Last Don. One possible reason, he concludes, is that “they did so to hide other vices.”

Gluttony does not count. Puzo is a man of large appetites. “He always lived above his means, even when he was younger and before The Godfather,” says Vogel. “He always took cabs and smoked expensive cigars even when he couldn’t afford it.” He also loves to eat, and it shows, although diabetes and bypassed arteries now require some no-calorie alternatives. So Puzo devours books. Volumes of classic and contemporary works fill the house in Bay Shore, Long Island, that he bought with the first money he earned from The Godfather. His daughter Virginia runs the household, and Carol Gino, the nurse who cared for his wife Erika before she died 17 years ago, is his loving companion. Sons Anthony and Eugene look after his financial interests.

“At home,” says novelist and longtime friend Josh Greenfeld, “Mario is the Godfather.” The author’s pals complement his deep family relationships. The group, which includes Vogel, Catch-22 author Heller and novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman, gets together for a boys-only lunch every month. Friedman recalls encountering Puzo’s writing when he hired him as an assistant editor for the adventure magazines Male and Men. “You knew that he was a natural and a master storyteller,” says Friedman. “I’m just disappointed that I didn’t become his agent.” Plans for a new book are already under way, and Puzo has told friends that he wants to write the last great Mafia novel. That, God willing, would make Domenico Clericuzio the Next to Last Don.

–With reporting by Andrea Sachs

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