Review: The Godfather

The Godfather - Mario Puzo

Everyone loves a good revenge tale. It satisfies a basic wish fulfillment instinct that's in all of us, and there's a sense of instant gratification that hits you when you reach the point where the tables are turned, gradually but permanently, and then all the pieces fall into place and heads start to roll. This alone is why I like revenge literature, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in my appreciation for literary karmic retribution.


There are so many types of revenge literature that would fit anyone's unique taste. There's artful vengeance (anything by Alexandre Dumas), there's poetic vengeance (Les Miserables), there's humorous vengeance (The Princess Bride), there's crazy vengeance (Medea, Moby Dick), there's dirty vengeance (anything by Frank Miller), there's monster vengeance (Frankenstein), there's "let's get on with it" vengeance (The Scarlet Letter), there's "just kill him already" vengeance (Hamlet), there's "wtf did I just read" vengeance (Gone Girl), there's "I don't think this qualifies as vengeance" vengeance (The Thorn Birds), and then there's bloody vengeance, what this book is, literally.


There isn't that much left to say about the Godfather saga that hasn't been said before. So this is not so much a review, more of a series of my impressions and reflections.


Mario Puzo is a product of his time, and it shows in his writing. Early on in the story, I was most surprised by his casual use of the words "Guinea" and "primitive" to describe things that were old-fashioned or from the "old country" (of Sicily). But since he's Italian himself, it's okay? So they say, though I'm not so sure. Also, there are a couple of snide remarks about the "Negro problem" in and around New York. Just a warning for those who might want to avoid "products of their time" authors.


As with all period pieces, this book captures the social tensions and dynamics of post-WWII New York adjusting to new waves of immigrants. There's a feeling of going back in time in these pages. The dialogue is reminiscent of those movies from the '40s, so is the fashion and corrupt law enforcement, and also the misogyny. But...products of their time, remember? Fine, whatever. Just know that it's there, in heaping amounts.


What sets the Corleones' story apart from other first generation Italian immigrant stories is Puzo's focus on the family's Sicilian background, which should never be confused with or grouped into the general Italian diaspora experience. Sicilians are often discriminated against, even amongst Italians, and so they stick together, form their own exclusive communities, and are weary of non-Sicilians, especially law enforcement. Like all peoples who come from lands constantly under siege, Sicilians responded by forming their own support systems and following their own code of conduct, beliefs and directions foreign to non-Sicilians.


Don Vito Corleone is an enforcer of the old-world codes, but to friends and acquaintances, he's a problem solver of the most dire situations, which he calls "favors." All he asks in return is friendship and respect. The person who comes to him for help would not need to pay for services rendered; all that's expected of him is to answer the Don's call when the time comes to return the favor. Puzo easily tucks all of this into the narrative, all the while going on with the story, and yet I could not help feeling a sense of cold dread for every character who asks for a favor. There's a chilling, unsettling atmosphere that descends on a scene when the Don is shown disrespect. You just know things aren't going to end well for that character.


Other notable characters that I didn't care for in the movie became much more sympathetic in the book, such as Sonny, Michael, and Kay. Sonny in the movie is a brash brute, loud, out spoken, and hot tempered; I didn't care for any of that. In the book, he's still all of those things, but he's also a capable underboss, not to be crossed. If not for him holding the fort down, the whole family would have descended into chaos following the Don's attempted assassination. As for Michael, there are more darkness and shades of gray to his personality and actions in the book. His gradual progression from Ivy League grad to acting Don is well drawn out; a very organic process with some foreshadowing, not an overnight change. Kay Adams, on the other hand, is still dull. More sympathetic due to her grieving scenes with Mama Corleone, but still very much all-American plain and dull. I'm still not feeling the supposed chemistry between these two kids. IMHO, there's more chemistry between Clemenza and his garrote.


The only character I like in both book and movie is Tom Hagen, the smartest, most interesting underrated accidental mobster ever written.

Sonny was white-faced with anger. “That’s easy for you to say, it’s not your father they killed.”
Hagen said quickly and proudly, “I was as good a son to him as you or Mike, maybe better. I’m giving you a professional opinion. Personally I want to kill all those bastards.”
The emotion in his voice shamed Sonny, who said, “Oh, Christ, Tom, I didn’t mean it that way.” But he had, really. Blood was blood and nothing else was its equal.

If only he were a Sicilian, then the whole empire could have been his. Michael and Kay would be able to live out their dull American dreams happily ever after; knowing Sonny, he'd get gunned down sooner or later; Fredo would still be a dim bulb; so the whole enterprise would belong to Hagen. But would he have the ruthlessness and ferocity to hold onto the family and the family business? That remains to be seen because he was never put to the test or even blooded. I think the story told from his POV would be quite interesting, and that's why I'd like to try Edward Falco's prequel The Family Corleone.


One thing that still bothers me is, if Vito Corleone is such a controlling proactive planner and preemptive striker ready for all kinds of situations, why didn't he move Connie and Carlo Rizzi to Long Island to keep an eye on them? Rizzi is a wife-beater and a loose cannon. It would have made more sense to keep this idiot within reaching distance, if only for Sonny to breathe down his neck. So leaving Connie and Rizzi way out in the city is just tragedy waiting to happen--and tragedy did happen. Also, it's uncharacteristic of Tom Hagen, consigliere extraordinaire, to not suggest or offer to move the couple closer to home. Why didn't anybody think of this, this huge gaping plot hole?


Subplots that I absolutely cannot stand in either book or movie? Johnny Fontaine's (aka Frank Sinatra) dwindling Hollywood fame storyline, and Lucy Mancini's bereaved mistress storyline. Such unnecessary waste of space and the reader's time. I understand the purpose of these two side stories is to show the Don's influence across the US, but the problems presented in said stories do not affect the Corleones directly, and so they cut into the main action and annoy readers a great deal, which I can only assume.

(show spoiler)


All in all, this book was a surprisingly engaging read for me, huge flaws and plot holes and all. I don't usually read crime dramas and I tend to stay away from "products of their time" writers, but there's something about Puzo's easy storytelling style narrative that drew me in.