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The Last Don ©1996 by Mario Puzo
Commentary ©1996 Random House, Inc.
Published by Random House, Inc. Paperback published by Ballantine Books
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Some Reviews of...
The Last Don
Puzo returns after a quarter century to the terrain of his greatest success, "The Godfather," to tell a second masterful tale of Mafia life. Times have changed since the day of the Corleones. American has fragmented, and Puzo's new family, the Clericuzios, the shadowy power behind the Mafia, is feeling modernity's certifugal force.
MARIO PUZO ON COMEBACK TRAIL
After a long absence from the bookstores, Mario Puzo once again visits the world of organized crime this September, with the release of his highly anticipated seventh novel, The Last Don. With movie rights already sold to CBS (which outbid, among others, Francis Ford Coppola) for $2.1 million, and the title chosen as a main selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club, Random House is expecting a fall blockbuster.
Considered by some advance readers to be his best work since The Godfather (which to date has sold 16 million copies), this second mob epic tells the story of Domenico Clericuzio, aging don of the most powerful Mafia family in America. Working in familiar territory, Puzo chronicles Chericuzio's attempt to move his family into legitimate business, in legalized gambling and motion-picture investment, and the long-buried secrets that threaten to destroy all he has worked for.
"It works on an almost mythic level," said Jonathan Karp, Puzo's editor on the novel. "With savage wit and subtle moral irony, Mario contrasts the morality of the modern American mob family and the Hollywood estabishment. It's a combination of mob family values and a fierce, funny, wickedly honest look inside Hollywood."
With major print, radio and television campaigns planned for late summer, and foreign rights already selling better than for any previous Puzo novel, it looks as if the old master is making a big comeback.
© copyright 1996 Publishers Weekly — reproduced with permission
Kirkus Reviews (5/15/96)
Puzo's seventh novel, a monstrously gripping quasi sequel to 1969's "The Godfather" flavors itself with none of the Corleones so dear to fans of that earlier potboiler but does simmer the same Italian marinara, using a more literate recipe.
From its Long Island Compound, the Clericuzio Family, ruled by the twistedly wise Great White Shark Domenico Clericuzio, dominates this nation's Mafia but longs to go legit. For over 30 years, old Domenico, has urged the Clericuzio's toward fading namelessly into the nation's fabric, into resturants, construction companies, and legalized gambling. Peace has reigned since Domenico's young nephew, Pippi De Lena, wiped out the brutal Santadio family in one bloody evening. But Sicilian vengeance knows no time limit, and one shadowy figure remains of mixed Santadio-Clericuzio blood who now seeks payment and rulership of the Clericuzios. Puzo divides his novel mainly into scenes set on Long Island, in Las Vegas, and Hollywood.
Pippi DeLena runs the Xanadu, the crown jewel of Las Vegas casinos, sided by his son, Croccificio, known as Cross. When Cross finds himself stunned by the beauty of Hollywood's leading actress, Athena Aquitane, he decides to help her quell her fear of her acid slinging ex-husband. Athena departs LoddStone Studios, until the threat is removed. To get his foot in the legit film industry, Cross buys the unfinished picture from LoddStone, and quickly, permanently resolves Athena's maritial problems. After his father Pippi is murdered, Cross sets out to avenge him. But Cross's instincts tell him that old Domenico may be behind his own nephew's murder. Cross, caught between Scylia and Charybdis, may have to go against his own blood if he is to have revenge.
Fabulously well-plotted; drunk on luxury. (Film rights to CBS: Book of the Month main selection)
© copyright 1996 Kirkus Reviews
J. Geoff Malta
PUZO: AN AUTHOR WE CAN'T REFUSE!
The masterful genius behind The Godfather and The Sicilian has once again invited us into the home of Family. The Last Don is an extraordinary look into another Family whom you can't help but feel a part of.
An immediate classic, this latest Puzo work takes us to New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Sicily -- the places Puzo and his fans know and love. Padrinophiles (fans of The Godfather) will feel right at home at the Clericuzio estate.
—J GEOFF MALTA, Padrinophile
© copyright 1996 J. Geoff Malta
Los Angeles Times
DEAN OF THE DONS:
Author Mario Puzo is at it again. This time, his Mafia kingpins take on Vegas, Hollywood and romance. And this time, Puzo's talking.
Tuesday July 30, 1996
For the first time in this life, Mario Puzo is doing the whole ball of wax--book signings, TV appearances and interviews--to promote his new Mafia novel, The Last Don. The reason for his sudden shift on publicity? Simple.
"I got nothing better to do," he said. "[Random House] convinced me you gotta do some marketing so they'll know your book is out there. I always used to think, 'If you write a good book, they'll find it, they'll buy it.' But now, it's occurred even to me that you sorta got to take a hand in it."
Don Corleone wouldn't be caught dead discussing the family business in the light, bright, airy room where Mario Puzo works. The 75-year-old author of The Godfather is wearing a thigh-length green polo shirt and baggy sweat pants. He chews on an enormous stogie but never lights up.
Puzo is a man who has remained in the shadows throughout his long career as a novelist and screenwriter, only rarely speaking to the press.
"I believed in an old-fashioned tradition: That a writer should be mysterious, that the book should speak for itself, that publicity was vulgar," Puzo said. "When I was growing up, the biggest insult that you could throw at a writer was that he would sell his book to the movies. That was a fighting insult."
Puzo's slowness in absorbing modern marketing techniques certainly doesn't apply to The Last Don. The novel, which has earned generally positive reviews, brings together three AAA-bonds of commercial success: Hollywood, Las Vegas and the Mafia. To this Puzo has added a dash of romance and a dollop of mob assassinations. The author has wisely topped it all off with a Happy Ending.
The don is Don Clericuzio, the ruthless head of the most powerful Mafia family in America. Don Corleone might have your legs broken, but with Don Clericuzio, forget it, you're dead. Don Clericuzio's grand plan is to make his family completely legitimate.
The protagonist is the don's grand-nephew, Cross De Lena, who manages the family's interest in a Las Vegas casino-hotel. Cross falls in love with America's most beautiful movie star, Athena Aquitane. Unfortunately, the don's brutal grandson, Dante, is scheming to bump off Cross.
Well, you can see what's brewing here. The road to that Happy Ending is paved with corpses, sex, gambling, high finance and the sleazy shenanigans of Hollywood studio executives.
All this from a man who declares: "Myself, I would hate to live in such a world, a world without law. But I take a view--it's my character's view. In my own personal view, everybody should get the electric chair, everybody should go to jail if they do something. Unless they're friends of mine."
Mario Puzo's world is a modest suburban home in Bay Shore, Long Island, the land of the tract house. The only concession to his Godfather wealth is the addition of several rooms and a tennis court that is squeezed close to the house. Puzo's one-acre lot ("It's a big acre," he says) is large in comparison to his neighbors', but the studio executives, casino czars and Mafia bosses who people the pages of The Last Don would surely turn up a collective nose at the author's digs.
"My wife didn't want to move," Puzo explained. "Big money came in and I wanted to move to California. But she didn't. It's funny how your mind works. I thought, what if we move to California, and she gets cancer? It'd be my fault. She got cancer anyway. She died. Imagine if I'd moved to California. I'd have been convinced it was my fault because I made her move to California."
(His German-born wife, Erika, died of cancer in 1978. They have five children.)
Puzo works at a small desk in a spacious upstairs room of his home. For 50 years, he has banged out nearly all of his prose on an old black Olympia typewriter that he purchased in Germany after World War II. The man who sold 13 million copies of The Godfather is, by his own account, an "undisciplined" writer.
"I write in streaks," he said. "I will write a lot for two months and then I won't write anything for a month or two. I'm not the kind of guy who puts in four hours a day and quits. If I'm going to write, I'll hang around the typewriter all day. It's like hanging around the phone waiting for a call."
When he's in a writing mood, Puzo gets up about 9 a.m. and reads the newspapers. Then he'll work on the manuscript and write as ideas pop into his head. When he's on a roll, he may not finish writing until 2 or 3 in the morning.
This is how his wife viewed the Puzo creative process: "My wife claimed that she'd never seen me writing. All she'd ever seen me do was lay back on the sofa and stare at the ceiling. I don't know what it is. You sort of go into a trance."
Puzo grew up in the poverty of New York's Hell's Kitchen during the Great Depression. His father was a laborer. His mother was illiterate. Puzo took up writing because of the encouragement he received from schoolteachers who recognized his talent. His family was less enthusiastic about his artistic pretensions.
"My mother was very fond of me but she despaired of my ever earning a living," he recalled. "My family sent me to Commerce High School, where they taught you typing. Years later, I reproached my sister about it. I was the famous author who had won two Academy Awards. I said, 'How could you send me to a commercial high school?' My sister was very tough. She looked at me and said, 'Because you were too dumb to go to regular high school.'"
World War II changed Puzo's life. He served with the Army in Europe, where he found his wife and the material for his first novel, The Dark Arena. The book, published in 1955, was well received by critics but made no money.
Over the next nine years, Puzo crafted his finest work, The Fortunate Pilgrim, an autobiographical chronicle of Italian immigrant life in New York. "I was going to write a masterpiece," he said. "Money didn't enter into it." The novel received much critical praise, and little else.
He worked as a government clerk to support his family. He also needed to write and pursue his favorite hobby.
"You're a very busy man when you gamble," he said. "You gotta get up in the morning to read the papers to see who you're going to bet. At 4 o'clock you go to see your loan shark for money to bet. Then you gotta go up there again at 7 o'clock to bet the night games."
Things began to look up in the 1960s, when Puzo began to write for men's magazines. His attitude toward writing had changed as well. Now, he would write for money. A minor character in The Fortunate Pilgrim was the neighborhood Mafia hoodlum. Puzo's publisher expressed a wish that the author had said more about the Mafia in the book. The Godfather was born. Puzo wrote a proposal for a Mafia novel that was turned down by four or five publishers before Putnam gave him $5,000 to do the book.
Puzo used his credit cards to take his family to Europe to celebrate the completion of the novel in 1969. The paperback rights were auctioned off while they were away.
"The day I arrived back from Europe I was either gonna have to sell my house to pay my debts or find an article to write for a lot of money," he said. "I called my publisher and learned the bidding on the paperback had reached $415,000."
It was Fat City from that point on. Puzo began pulling down tons of money as a screenwriter: The Godfather, Godfather II, Superman, Superman II. Eleven screenplays in all. He also banged out three novels. (The paperback rights to Fools Die sold for a then-astonishing $2.5 million in 1978.)
As Puzo tells the story, his relationship with Hollywood was one of powerful men who insisted on giving him large amounts of cash. He had no interest in writing the screenplay for "The Cotton Club" and therefore instructed his lawyer to demand $1 million. It didn't work. He got the million.
"Why are they giving me all this money?" Puzo asked. "There's something I don't quite understand about Hollywood."
Despite the deeply contemptuous view of Hollywood that emerges from the pages of "The Last Don," Puzo says the movies are a good way to make a living.
"Script writing, compared to novel writing, is much less labor intensive," he said. "I wrote scripts in two or three months. It takes me five years to write a novel. If I had discovered screenwriting first and been successful at it, I never would have written a novel."
These days, Puzo spends most of his time at home reading. A heart attack four years ago has slowed his pace, keeping him off his tennis court and away from the gambling tables.
He tried his hand at a book on the Borgias, but the project didn't get very far. His latest dream is to write the mother of all Mafia books--a sweeping novel that will recount the long history of the criminal organization.
"I'd like to get rid of the whole thing in one big novel," he said. "I figure I'll be dead before it's finished. Finito. But I'm going to try. I've got nothing else to do."
©copyright 1996, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times
AS 'THE FAMILY' TURNSTHE LAST DON. By Mario Puzo (Random House: $25.95, 496 pp.)
In 1965, broke, bored and underappreciated at age 45, Mario Puzo deliberately set out to write a piece of commercial fiction. He succeeded, big-time.
"The Godfather" sold 13 million copies, became the engine for three films and set Puzo up for life with handsomely compensated careers as a screenwriter and novelist. Now, at age 75, he returns with another skillfully crafted piece of commercial fiction, "The Last Don."
It gives us Hollywood, Las Vegas and the mob in one sweet dish. Sex, murder, corruption, betrayal and redemption; beautiful women, vicious gangsters, sleazy producers, crooked cops and drunken pols--it's all here and no doubt coming to a screen near you someday, because Puzo crafts a decent story while touching all the right commercial bases.
"The Last Don" is a nearly perfect summer book--bawdy, funny, easy to handle. It lacks the novelty of "The Godfather" but, like a good soap opera, its characters become addictive. You will root for two of them. Naturally, both are impossibly beautiful and smart, and their love helps them overcome the obstacles in their paths.
The book opens on familiar terrain, and for a little while you might think you've been there, read that: Don Clericuzio is an old man, wise and powerful, the wealthy leader of an unusual "family." He's noble but trapped in an ignoble world, a world where men who cross "the family line" are "dispatched." He has three sons and a daughter, and he yearns to change his world so they and their children can make money legally and enter legitimate society.
One learns this background at a joyous family occasion--a christening as opposed to a wedding--but this echo of the "The Godfather" soon gives way to the story's other twin peaks, Hollywood and Vegas. And it is here that one realizes Puzo must have been taking copious mental notes while learning about the movie business and pursuing a favorite pastime, gambling.
he Hollywood characters are particularly delicious. There's Bantz, the ruthless studio executive who refuses to give "even the standard lip service to writers." His job is to take over after directors finish their "artistic cuts" and make films acceptable to audiences.
There's Skippy Deere, a producer and "cheerful ardent hypocrite" who cheats a friend out of big money, then says to her, in an echo of the "it's-just-business" murders in "The Godfather": "This had nothing to do with our personal relationship, this is between our lawyers." Deere's job is to take care of problems, like inserting a "moral turpitude" clause into the contracts of two starlets to prevent them from talking about an actor's death.
Then there's Ernest Vail, a "National Treasure" as a writer, but a babe in the woods when he goes Hollywood. His problem, according to Puzo, is that he "has no hidden agendas" and falls for the oldest gimmick in the world, taking points on net instead of gross. He mourns the backseat that books have taken to movies because movies give us "Sly Stallone as Achilles in the Iliad." Vail is so put out that he threatens to kill himself if the studio doesn't treat him right.
There are many more characters, including a hard-nosed entertainment lawyer who has her screenwriter friend write dialogue for her clients' appearances on the stand. But most important, there's Athena Aquitane, the book's female lead, a "Bankable Star" with a tragic secret who's being stalked by her crazed ex-husband.
The stalker poses such a problem, Athena quits a $100-million picture halfway through, inducing panic in Bantz, Deere and others. They suspect she's not showing on the set because she and her agent are shaking the studio down for money. But Athena is not only beautiful and smart, she's honorable. She's genuinely afraid and doesn't need to be a star to be happy.
Cut to Vegas, where Puzo gives us the male lead: Cross De Lena, the don's grand-nephew, whose father is the Clericuzio family's "No. 1 Hammer," meaning killer. Don Clericuzio regards Cross like a grandson, and with his don's help, Cross is running one of the town's great casinos by the time he's 25.
His age guarantees that multiple hot young actors will lust for the part, and why not? Not only is Cross beautiful and smart, he's brave and tender. He has one big flaw, however: He kills. Midway through the book, Puzo tries to overcome this defect by having Cross express a sudden desire to leave the don's violent world. It's the book's only serious misstep. Cross' change of heart comes out of the blue, completely unmotivated. Only a few scenes--oops, pages--before, Cross has been anointed the family's No. 2 hammer. The man he killed had murdered the daughter of a politician important to the family interests, but murder is still murder.
By now, you might have guessed what brings Athena and Cross together. Athena has that problem, the crazed ex-husband, and Cross takes care of problems when he's not helping the don implement a grand scheme to make gambling legal nationwide so the family can monopolize it and go legitimate. Cross also wants to get into the movie business. He's intrigued because his sister, who has turned her back on their hammering father, has become a successful screenwriter--so successful she can get points on gross.
As with Athena, there's a tragic secret in Cross' past, too, and it's essential to understanding why he and the don's grandson, the short and ugly Dante Clericuzio, become enemies as the story unfolds. Yet unlike Athena, who knows her secret, Cross doesn't--not until the very end when he must risk the don's wrath and avenge his father's murder.
In revealing that mystery, Puzo gives us the resolution of all resolutions. First, in a St. Valentine's Day-type massacre that would be the envy of any action director; then, a double murder in Las Vegas employing a practice the family calls "Communion"--making a body disappear. (Murders where bodies are found are called "Confirmations.")
There's a lot of violence in "The Last Don," certainly enough to sustain a miniseries. Sex, too. Starlets sleep with moguls. Actresses are raped and seduced. Another "bankable star" collapses during a threesome. A lesbian director goes after her female stars. Athena and Cross make passionate love.
It's hard to find much fault with such a Bankable Book. It is what it is--escapist fun in the hands of an adroit storyteller using what's worked for him in the past. On occasion, Puzo seems to tire, and lame dialogue clunkily advances the plot. I began to scream at his repeated use of the word "huge" to describe chairs, tables, buffets, mansions, cabanas and Havanas.
I was amazed when Puzo, of all people, referred to a prosecutor as a "United States district attorney," when such do not exist. Or when he made a gangster unafraid of a legal case because New York had no death penalty--even though the case in question was federal, not state.
Sorry to be so picky, Mario. But you didn't leave much.
—GENE MUSTAIN, Los Angeles Times
Gene Mustain is co-author of three nonfiction books about Organized Crime, including the just-released Gotti: Rise and Fall, which was the basis of an HBO movie that aired August 1996.
© copyright 1996 Los Angeles Times
USA Today (7/22/96)
In 'Last Don', Puzo's Mob goes Hollywood
First off, let's establish that The Last Don does not achieve the heights scaled by Mario Puzo's 1969 novel, The Godfather, which sold roughly 16 million copies. Popular culture is still awash in the ripples left by that book and subsequent films.
But The Last Don, in bookstores Wednesday, delivers a compelling tale peopled by memorable characters. Puzo is a master storyteller with an uncanny facility for details that force the reader to keep the pages turning.
Call it a literary meat hook.
A mystery forms the heart of The Last Don: What terrible thing happened during the war with the Santadio Family? The book opens in 1965 at a double christening of two infants related to Don Clericuzio, a wise but ruthless Mafia godfather. The adult fates of these two baby boys will fuel the book's plot.
The story flashes forward to 1990 at Las Vegas' Xanadu Casino Hotel. Cross (short for Croccifixio De Lena) is the son of Pippi De Lena and brother of Pippi's estranged daughter, Claudia. Handsome, courteous, and clever, Cross is the old don's grandnephew.
The old Don wants to disentangle his descendants from the underworld's illegal ways, but Cross seems destined to follow his hitman father, who initiates him into the Mafia rituals of loan collection, intimidation and eventually murder.
Out in Hollywood, his sister Claudia is also making her reputation, thanks to her innate intelligence, her quick wit and the skill of a plastic surgeon.
Puzo, who won two Oscars for his Godfather screenplays, pens a devastating portrait of how Hollywood really works, complete with its own Don, Eli Marrion, an elderly studio chief. Sex is for career advancement, and the making of money reigns supreme.
Although the old Don and his world play a role in this novel, modern-day Las Vegas and most of all Hollywood take center stage as Cross falls in love with a beautiful but secretive actress.
An ugly blood feud rooted in the past provides a final plot twist and ties up the loose ends. Believe me, The Last Don won't leave you sleeping with the fish.
© copyright 1996 USA Today
New York Times (7/28/96)
Leaving Las Vegas
In Mario Puzo's latest, mobsters head to Hollywood, where the real crooks are.
It is a measure of Mario Puzo's skill that after turning the last page of his rich and ebullient new novel, I was able to remember no fewer than 35 characters and recall clearly their backgrounds, motivations and roles in the convoluted plot and subplots. Indeed, all of Mr. Puzo's formidable storytelling talents are on display throughout The Last Don, a big, fast-paced tale that should provide his fans our most entertaining read since The Godfather. The primary settings are the seats of power and wealth in Las Vegas and Hollywood. The characters are larger-than-life personalities, supremely self-confident risk takers with great appetites for money, sex and power.
Clearly, [Hollywood] is a world about which Mr. Puzo knows plenty. His Hollywood characters are outsize and fun.
Mr. Puzo wraps up his intricate plot with the same ingenuity he exhibits throughout this satisfying novel.
—Vincent Patrick, New York Times Book ReviewVincent Patrick is the author of the novels The Pope of Greenwich Village & Family Business.
© copyright 1996 New York Times
'Godfather' Creator Makes Offer Readers Can't Refuse
Wednesday, July 31, 1996
The Reuters Wire
NEW YORK (Reuter) - The aging "Godfather" of American writers sits in the posh hotel suite with a commanding view of all of Manhattan, denying -- as he has so many times before -- that he ever met a real Don.
He holds a long black cigar and chews on it because his doctors tell him he is too old to smoke. One suspects that the match is not far away.
"Me and the Mafia are going to die at the same time. In fact, the Mafia is disappearing now," growls 75-year-old Mario Puzo in that gravelly "Noo Yawk" accent used by Mafioso in the movies made of his most famous book, "The Godfather." You know, when they stare blankly at the screen and declare, "Me? I'm just a businessman."
Puzo says he has no inside track on the doings of the real-life leaders of organized crime, even though his latest book is another paean to the glories of crime family values, called "The Last Don." The critics are already calling it a book you can't refuse and Puzo, dismissed for years by some as just a lucky hack, is suddenly being treated with RESPECT.
'All of a sudden they notice I write with humor. I always write with humor. 'The Godfather' was a funny book, nobody noticed," Puzio growls. Maybe all those killings got in the way.
But "The Last Don" is a funny, outrageous book. It is about the Clericuzios, a crime family more ruthless than the Corleones and with a rule about not doing business in Hollywood because film makers cheat, no many how many horse heads you leave in their beds.
You don't think that's funny? Whatdayaknow?
Puzo, who once had to sue a major film company to get money owed to him, says the book is funny. It even has funny lines like this description of why the last don, Domenico Clericuzio, is a loyal American: "Early on he had been told the famous 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."
Puzo's editor at Random House, Jonathan Karp, says Puzo has a speciality that no other writer on the American literary scene has: "He writes about the virtues of corrupt people." And there is plenty of corruption to go around in "The Last Don." The hero is a killer, but everybody he wipes out deserves it.
"The Last Don" is only Puzo's second novel about the American Mafia and he says all he knows about organized crime is what he read in Senate crime commission reports and other printed materials. He also says he made up a lot of stuff.
"I write romantic fiction. I had to fight with my publisher to use the title 'The Godfather' because he thought it was a religious title. The mob didn't use that term until after the book came out. I also invented the phrase 'bloody mouth,' meaning a guy who likes to kill," he said.
"I know 'The Godfather' is a flattering book that makes them out to be heroes, but I didn't cheat. I had them do terrible things."
He also tricked Paramount into using Marlon Brando as Don Vito Coreleone in the movie, even though Brando had eight straight flops at the time. The film remade Brando's career and put him forever in Puzo's debt.
"I got scared. I read in the paper that the comedian Danny Thomas wanted to buy the studio so he could play 'The Godfather.' So I wrote a letter to Brando. He is the greatest screen actor I ever saw," Puzo said, twirling his cigar as if it was a magic wand.
Random House is promoting "The Last Don" as Puzo's comeback novel. His last book was in 1990 and as far as he is concerned not enough people bought it. Then he was hit by a near-fatal illness and lay in bed for months, grumping.
"Then I got up and started writing again. There's a lot of stuff about writing that I don't know, like what a split infinitive is."
But he makes up for it by knowing a lot of other stuff -- ya know wot I mean?
© copyright 1996 Reuters/Variety
A NEW FAMILY'S VALUES
THE GODFATHER OF MAFIA FICTION MAKES A TERRIFIC COMEBACK WITH A NOVEL THAT YOU SHOULDN'T REFUSE
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
© copyright 1996 TIME Magazine
With 1969's The Godfather, the boss of all Mafia scribes took crime writing to operatic levels. He still sings the Sicilian arias of blood and brotherhood like no one else, and in this faultless and funny epic he adds a pinch of Gilbert & Sullivan for a change of pace. Lurking beneath the rubouts, skims (from casinos) and beak-wetting (payoffs) are some perfectly observed, hilarious subplots.
The main tale turns on the determination of aging Mafia don Domenico Clericuzio to get his family out of drug peddling and other high-risk scams so that they can disappear into legitimate society--the movie biz and legalized gambling. But his master plan is jolted by his bloodthirsty grandson Dante and gambling mastermind Cross De Lena, who plot and parry at the family's luxury Las Vegas hotel-casino. Meanwhile, Puzo (who cowrote the screenplays for all three Godfather films with Francis Ford Coppola and cowrote the first two Superman movies, among other films) skewers the machinations of studio executives, the twittery egos of "bankable stars" and the career consequences of "below the line" affairs (with grips, stuntmen and women, and others lacking major screen credits).
And then there's Ernest Vail, a gifted writer but failed Hollywood operator who wrote a highly profitable series of films but hasn't gotten a penny in promised percentages. The reason: His contract calls for net points. (Studio accounting makes sure that the picture shows no profit after expenses are deducted.) But Vail discovers that if he dies, his family is entitled to a piece of the gross, where the big bucks lurk. His solution is a classic example of Hollywood dealing: Vail threatens to commit suicide if the studio doesn't come through with a sizable chunk of cash.
You should not be surprised that Don will not be coming soon to a multiplex near you (although it will be adapted for a CBS miniseries). Still, Puzo offers his readers another story they can't refuse. (Random House, $25.95)
PHOTO BY: Ken Schles for Entertainment Weekly
© copyright 1996 People Magazine
Washington Post (7/28/96)
SUMMER '96: BEACH BLANKET BOOKS
MARIO PUZO is the best thing that ever happened to the Mafia. In his new novel, The Last Don, just as in The Godfather before it, he paints a flamboyantly sympathetic picture of mobsters that is at least as entertaining as it is specious. And hats off to him!
This particular piece of wildly enjoyable hokum begins, yet again, with an aging Mafia lord about to divest himself of his crime empire. Don Domenico Clericuzio, like Vito Corleone before him, has determined there are better and safer ways to make money in today's America than drugs, prostitution and gambling. He wants his grandchildren to live normal lives like the rest of us -- perhaps owning a bank or a brokerage firm. But of course a dark 20-year-old secret stemming from the Clericuzio family feud with the murderous Santadios stands in the way. It is left for a nephew not directly in the blood line, Croccifixio "Cross" DeLena, to resolve things.
Sound familiar? It is. But don't blame Puzo. He invented the form. That would be like blaming John Ford for the Western. And Puzo is too clever a craftsman to repeat himself exactly.
In Hollywood, they say the secret to a good pitch is to reassure the executive by pitching a story he already knows was successful, but this time with a slight variation. The variation in The Last Don is Hollywood itself. Yes, in The Godfather Hollywood figures in the story tangentially, but here it is at the center.
An extremely beautiful, glamorous and intelligent actress with the nearly parodic name of Athena Aquitane is set to star in a $100 million feminist epic of ancient Rome called "Messalina." (No such movie would ever be produced in today's Hollywood. But never mind.) At the start of production, however, Aquitane decides to quit the film because her ex-husband, a jealous no-account Texan with heavy political connections and a broad physique, is mysteriously threatening her. Loddstone Studios, the producers of the film, will be devastated financially unless they can do something about this.
The Mafia becomes involved because the screenwriter of this epic is, amazingly, a Mafia daughter and herself the sister of Cross DeLena. At that point Cross is running the luxurious Xanadu Hotel in Las Vegas and is the Bruglioni (baron) for the Clericuzio family in the Western states. The young and handsome Cross is urged by his sister to come to Hollywood to persuade Athena to return to the film. Like every other man and most women who come in contact with her, Cross then falls for the actress, who has her own dark secret, just like the Clericuzio family.
This leads to Cross's involvement with the movie business, particularly with the owner of Loddstone Studios, a suitably impressive Lew Wasserman clone named Eli Marrion, and his scurrilous second-in-command, Bobby Bantz. Soon, out of love for his sister and for Athena, Cross has bought the rights to the benighted "Messalina" himself, incurring the huge financial liability without telling Don Clericuzio and putting himself at odds with the Hollywood moguls who, not surprisingly, suspect his generosity. (Hollywood, in Puzo's vision, is much like the Mafia -- family and money are the only things that count -- but somewhat more boring. Also the moguls don't eat as well. No one, in Puzo, eats as well as the Mafia.)
In order to protect his investment, Cross must convince Athena it is safe to return to the film and to do this he must resort to old-fashioned family methods about which he is, naturally for the hero in this genre, ambivalent. Without exposing the details of what may already be obvious, Cross saves the day, but he must first overcome a final vicious attack by the living ghost of the Santadios. There is a murder in the Sierra Nevada, a fire at the special villas for highrollers at the Vegas hotel and flashbacks to the halcyon days of the Mafia in Sicily. On his deathbed, the Don is pleased.
MANY have probably written this before, but the success of Puzo's Mafia tales is rooted not in crime at all, but in the love of family. Even when family members act evilly to each other, ultimately we are to excuse them. Mafia family values are all. This allows us to enjoy acts that normally we would despise -- one of the guilty pleasures of fiction.
But that is not the only pleasure in this book. On the way you can pick up considerable Mafia lore. Whether or not it is apocryphal is probably not important. (Who can resist knowing that a "communion" is an execution which must remain forever secret, but a "confirmation" requires that the death of the victim be, well, confirmed?)
Also, Puzo, through Don Clericuzio, offers us insight into life's vicissitudes. The Don himself is something of a closet New Age guru and his Sicilian version of "Be here now," repeated several times at crisis points in the book, is this: "The world is what is and we are what we are." Words to live by, I say. Too bad the Mafia doesn't really run Hollywood. They might make better movies.
Roger L. Simon's latest Moses Wine detective novel, "The Lost Coast," will be published this winter.
—Roger L. Simon
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company
Ever since Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather, he's been the acknowledged don of the Mafia novel, portraying the Mob in a mostly glamorous and sympathetic light. His new novel, The Last Don, features all the usual suspects and elements: there's the aging leader of a Mafia family, looking for redemption for himself and his family by going legit; there's the large family compound and the bitter sister whose husband was murdered. Sound familiar? It should--it's also the basic outline of The Godfather, Part III, which Puzo co-wrote with director Francis Ford Coppola.
The Last Don opens at the dual christening of the grandson and grand-nephew of Don Clericuzio: "Twenty, thirty years from now," says the don, "we will all disappear into the lawful world. These two infants that we baptize today will never have to commit our sins or take our risks." But as the two infants fight over a single bottle placed in their crib, we know there's trouble ahead. Twenty-five years later, the two cousins are thoroughly entrenched in the family business, and fighting for control.
Scenes jump quickly from the Bronx to Vegas to Hollywood, with new characters appearing in such a flurry that, in the hands of a lesser talent, we might lose track. But Puzo keeps it all together, and the characters and their motives are always clear and interesting, if not always particularly deep. Sure, The Last Don is the literary equivalent of a cheap Italian dinner, but it's still every bit as satisfying as good plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
© copyright 1996 Mr. Showbiz
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