by Dee Ernst
Last Thanksgiving, while sitting down for three free minutes between working and feeding the masses, I turned on the television to see what Christmas specials were being aired way too early. In addition to Rudolph, I found that there was a ‘Godfather’ marathon running. The Godfather? Is that what was considered holiday fare? But of course, the movies sucked me right back in, to paraphrase Michael, and a few weeks later, I hunted up the original novel by Mario Puzo and gave it another read.
Man, what great book.
The Godfather was a prime example of the perfect book at the perfect time. In 1969, when people all over the country were questioning authority and protesting against ‘the man’, here was a classic American story of a struggling immigrant who, by working hard and staying true to his family, carved out a piece of All-American apple pie for himself. Except that, in the case of Vito Corleone, he did it by being an outlaw, a Mafioso, a completely unrepentant criminal. By finding a way to live the American dream by staying on the wrong side of law and order, he became something of a cultural icon.
I’m not going to tell you about the story – all of you should know it. If you don’t, have you seriously been living in a cave for the past 40 years? What I want to talk about was how it felt to read it again after all these years.
The first thing that struck me was how timeless the characters were. History puts the novel in a specific time and place – New York after World War II – but Puzo wrote nothing to make it seem ‘old fashioned’. The dialog was fresh and contemporary. There were no descriptions of the characters, what they’re wearing, or how they look, that dated them in any way. In fact, if it weren’t for the glaring absence of cell phones, this could have been written last year about a Mafia family living and breathing here in the new millennium.
A few things occurred to me that hadn’t before. Michael was quite cruel to his wife, Kay. Nothing physical or emotional, but his casual lying to her throughout struck me as very cold and vicious. There was not a great deal written that made me warm up to Sonny, although the author told us he had a kind and loving side, I never got that. Sonny was brutal from start to finish. (Maybe it was James Caan that made me warm to the character on-screen?) Tom Hagen became my favorite character – honorable, brave, loyal to his ‘Family’, he was the most rounded and sympathetic character in the book.
It didn’t bother me that there were no significant women characters. Michael’s two wives had small parts, as did Lucy Mancini, the former lover of Sonny Corleone who starts a new life for herself out in Las Vegas. When I first read this novel, in the midst of the women’s movement, I was outraged (hey, women can be hardened killers too). But I realized that the world Puzo was writing about was rooted in hundreds of years of Sicilian history, and there was simply no role for women in that world, then or now.
As for the Godfather, Vito Corleone himself, he seemed physically smaller in the book. Marlon Brando on-screen was then and always had been an overwhelming presence. In the book, Vito Corleone seemed a man you might ordinarily overlook. Although Brando was magnificent, in the book version of the character, his power came through his iron will and total fearlessness, and it was a much more compelling portrait.
It’s almost impossible to talk about the book without talking about the movie as well. Both helped define a certain time and place. Everyone talked about the book. Everyone talked about the movie. This was storytelling in a new way – raw, unfiltered, matter-of-fact. The movie made household names of almost everyone involved – Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall. Although the books Puzo wrote after The Godfather never achieved the same popularity, those movies made believers out of all those people who said there was no such thing as ‘a good sequel.’ They still stand today as great cinema – great enough to have their own marathon on Thanksgiving weekend.
You can still find copies of the original paperback in used bookstores. The ebook version is available. Or maybe, like me, you have that original copy stashed somewhere because you knew that someday you might like to read it again. Find it. Read it. Seriously, it will be like reading it for the first time.