Tuesday, April 06, 2021

the last book I read

The Godfather by Mario Puzo.

Heeeyyyyyyy, fuhgeddaboudit. I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse. Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes. EYYYYY I'M TALKIN' HERE; go get me a plate of meatballs and gabagool and some cannoli and never take sides against the family again. Capisce?

Happy now? OK. We're in New York, just after the end of World War II, and it is the day of Don Vito Corleone's daughter's wedding, a day on which, according to Italian-American custom, he cannot refuse to grant a favour requested of him. That being the case, and the Don having the power and influence to grant certain favours beyond the reach of most men, there is naturally a queue of wedding guests eager for a moment of the Don's time between his various father-of-the-bride obligations. Caution is advisable here, though, the granting of a favour will put you in the potentially awkward position of being in his debt, and one day the Don or his associates may come to you for repayment of that favour.

We also meet the rest of the Corleone family: daughter Connie, whose wedding day this is, eldest son Santino (known as "Sonny"), the heir apparent to the Corleone family empire but dangerously hot-headed and impulsive, second son Fredo, generally regarded as not the sharpest knife in the drawer, adoptive son Tom Hagen, the Don's personal lawyer, and youngest son Michael, just returned from military duty and accompanied by his American girlfriend Kay Adams. The family runs, according to official records at least, a business importing and distributing olive oil from Sicily, but in reality is one of the most powerful New York Mafia crime families. 

The Don's wish is that Sonny, as long as he mellows a bit, should inherit his role as head of the family businesses, and that Michael should continue to pursue a life outside of them in order to provide an avenue for the family businesses to eventually go completely legit and give up the old garrotting and murdering. Not just yet, though, as someone sells out the Don while he's making an incognito trip into New York and gunmen from a rival family put several bullets into him. The family soon learns that this is the work of a rival gangster, Sollozzo, working for another family, and also that the welfare of the Don, who miraculously survives the shooting but is now incapacitated in hospital, is being endangered thanks to the police captain, McCluskey, entrusted with guarding the Don but actually on Sollozzo's payroll.

It is clear that Sollozzo and McCluskey need to be taken out, but none of the usual guys will be allowed near them. Michael volunteers himself for the meeting that is to be arranged, and, with some family contacts providing prior knowledge of the meeting's location, manages to arrange the concealment of a gun on the premises with which Michael puts a cap in both men's asses, and is then obliged to flee to Sicily until the heat is off.

While Michael is away he conducts a romance with a local girl, Apollonia, but it is soon clear that he is not safe even in rural Sicily, as Apollonia is killed by a car bomb meant for him. Meanwhile back in America Sonny has been lured into an ambush and machine-gunned to death. 

Michael returns to America and takes control of the family, with the recovered but now semi-retired Don as his advisor, before his sudden death from a heart attack. Michael decides to relocate the family businesses to Las Vegas, where expansion is rapid and rich pickings are to be made in hotels and gambling. Before the move can be completed, though, there is some unfinished business to be concluded in New York: a ruthless campaign of revenge on the heads of the rival crime families and those involved (including some Corleone family insiders) in the attempts on the former Don's life. Thus Michael consolidates the Corleone family's position in New York, exacts revenge for the murder of Sonny and the attempted murder of the Don, and secures his position as the new Don.

These days The Godfather is somewhat overshadowed by the film of the same name, but it's important to be clear that the novel pre-dates the film by about three years (1969 compared with 1972) and was already a legitimate publishing phenomenon by the time the film was made. My copy, which I have had for at least 25 years and was a bit battered when I bought it, dates from before the film was made and proudly carries the claim that 6 million copies had already been sold. 

The basic story told here is the same as in the film, with the narrative set in the book's nominal "now" reproduced almost identically in the film. Certain bits are omitted - all the Vito: The Early Years stuff in New York was left until Part II (though the return to Sicily to carve up the old Don who had his father murdered isn't in the book), and the sub-plot involving Johnny Fontane (clearly modelled on Frank Sinatra) is omitted altogether, apart from the bit that's required to get us to the legendary set-piece with the horse's head. Also omitted is the extremely bizarre sub-plot involving Lucy Mancini* and her enormous vagina, which Las Vegas surgeon Jules Segal arranges to have tightened up (complete with quite lengthy surgical descriptions) and then makes enthusiastic use of, something probably not strictly in line with ethical medical practice. Some of the descriptive stuff around Johnny Fontane's various sexual encounters is slightly odd, also, for instance:

I think in general the films have more of a claim to be enduring works of art than the book, which is a tremendously entertaining thriller with some odd lumpy elements (see above). It's hard to appreciate 50+ years later how many of the now-ubiquitous Mafia clich├ęs originated here, as they're so baked into popular culture. What I can say is that the first film in particular (which, contrary to much current film critic orthodoxy, I think is by far the best) is one of the first properly "adult" films I ever remember specifically choosing to watch, rather than just being in the room while, for instance, my father was watching something. The only other film which made a similarly indelible impression was its near-contemporary The French Connection which I probably watched at a very similar age. 

* More like LOOSey Mancini**, amirite?
** More like LOOSey MINGini, amirite?

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