By Mario Puzo Random House; 316 pages; $25.95
Reviewed by Jules Siegel
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, July 9, 2000
"Omerta," Mario Puzo's posthumously published last novel, is, at best, Puzo imitating himself very badly. At worst, it raises speculation that Puzo did not finish the book before he died in July 1999 and that it was handed over to some talentless hack to finish.
In judging "Omerta," it's important not to overstate the case for Puzo's "The Godfather," which was really a supreme version of the trash novel. The first 100 pages of "The Godfather" unroll with devastating force, but after that, as Puzo himself acknowledged, the novel tends to lose some of its impact. The "Godfather" that world audiences cherish is mostly the creation of Francis Ford Coppola, with whom Puzo shared a screenplay Oscar for the film.
Puzo was a blunt stylist who had no problems turning to some well-used phrase to move a plot along when he was in a hurry. The books that followed "The Godfather" showed increasing discipline, but often at the expense of "The Godfather's" ferocious drive.
"Omerta" lacks any of this depth or precision. It's an awkward collage of poorly constructed characters pasted into a plot that makes almost no sense. Puzo's often charming cracker-barrel philosophy is replaced by pompous political soliloquies. There's no real detail in the food, just repetitions of statements such as, "He slowly peeled a pear."
The plot is preposterous. Mafia heirs struggling to achieve legitimacy fight off a rival group that will stop at nothing to take over the jewel of their empire, a multibillion-dollar bank, in order to build a nuclear bomb.
When Puzo wrote an adventure scene, he usually had everything well worked out, in the sense of who was where and did what. "Omerta" ends with a shootout that is absolutely incomprehensible. Perhaps the dedicated Puzo fan turns to the fantasy of the invisible hack to rationalize avoiding what is probably the correct analysis -- that Puzo wrote "Omerta," and it is terrible.
Yet it is a compelling theory. Puzo sometimes worked with collaborators and was notoriously miserly about giving proper credit. In "Fools Die" he even refers to a fake book scheme, involving a novelist presumably based on Norman Mailer. There's also a subplot in "The Last Don" about a writer (very reminiscent of Puzo) who is so concerned about leaving his family some money that he commits suicide to force the screen rights to his novel to revert to them, thereby foiling the movie company that screwed him on the percentages.
Many readers agree that Puzo's greatest work by far is "The Fortunate Pilgrim" (1965), an autobiographical novel that rivals Chekhov in economy and eloquence, Dickens in its descriptive power. Here he wrote sentences as if carving steel. His imagery -- the table at the end of a family feast looking like a battlefield covered with bloody bones and carcasses, the father's crazed stare blazing out of a hydrotherapy pool in the insane asylum -- emphatically dramatized the simple physical details of expression and food, light and smell, that make a story live. Others prefer his first novel, "Dark Arena" (1955), without doubt the novel of the post-World War II Occupation, a ghastly portrait of the 20th century reduced to the dry heaves of defeat, not the drunken revelry of conquest.
Turning to a crime novel to make money after the commercial failure of these masterpieces, Puzo added his special depth of social insight. He said that "The Godfather" wasn't about crime, but about power and justice. The Kennedys influenced the characterization of the Corleones, he explained, and he mentioned their compound at Hyannisport as an example of how he used elements of their lives in the novel.
He was proudest of the opening scene of "The Godfather," the judge rolling up his sleeves, the cinematic introduction of all the main characters and themes. He said that scenes such as the punishment of the scam artists (who tried to cheat the mother by taking apart her furnace, then demanding a blackmailer's ransom to put it back together again) were there to drive home how the lack of official justice creates a need for men like Don Vito Corleone.
It is really difficult to believe that a writer who gave us such great entertainment and, yes, even wisdom, could produce a piece of wretched garbage like "Omerta," even at the bottom of his powers, sick and dying. What would happen were Random House asked to produce the manuscript? "There is no manuscript," they might answer. "He did it all on the computer."
Of course. No one wrote this. No one even read this. The computer did it. It's a Turing test -- the famed artificial-intelligence challenge in which a subject tries to decide whether onscreen responses from a remote computer are really human -- and it fails.