Make me an offer I can’t refuse. Ask me to explain why, 40 years after a boy from Hell’s Kitchen–Italian immigrant, government clerk, hack writer–wrote a book about a squabbling family that settled its feuds with guns, we’re still reading The Godfather.
My first copy of Mario Puzo’s fourth and most successful book was pre-censored; one of the many readers who’d borrowed it from the local library had neatly razored out the scene where Sonny Corleone and the bridesmaid get it on, a few other mildly pornographic sections, and the famous scene where a businessmen who turns down an offer he shouldn’t have refused wakes up to find his horse’s severed head on the bedsheets.
A few months later, reading an unabridged version, I had to admire the bowdleriser’s impeccable sense of the book’s high points—the unknown wielder of the blade had also exercised the quietly drawn scene where Don Corleone dies, not struck down by a hail of bullets, but in relative peace, a Mafia don seeing death among the tomato plants.
By Puzo’s own admission, The Godfather was not intended to be high literature. He had aspirations to literary writing, though. The best book Puzo ever wrote had come out three years previously; The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw remains one of the strangest and most compelling evocations of growing up, a child’s book by an adult who had not forgotten what it felt like to think like a child. That book remains in print, but Puzo made his bones and his reputation with The Godfather.
He’d spent a decade hacking out adventure stories, payment by the word, for True Action magazine, in between living a clerk’s life, and he’d seen three books—The Dark Arena, The Fortunate Pilgrim and Davie Shaw—published to general indifference. He intended his fourth book to be a commercial success, and said famously that if he’d known it was going to an enduring as well as financial success, he would have written it better. It’s remained iconic, the automatic point of comparison for any other novel or film featuring the Mafia, organised crime, violence and murder. And over time, its weaknesses—the bald, unembellished story-telling, the quick introduction of characters—have been overcome by its strengths, the compelling central story, the tightly woven plot.
But there are two points of great interest about The Godfather. The 1960s yielded a clutch of bestsellers that have endured the ravages of time. Much to the dismay of literary purists, we’re still reading James Michener, Irving Wallace, Ian Fleming and Harold Robbins, to mention some of the popular pulp fiction authors of the day. But there’s a massive difference between the reading habits of the 1960s and 1970s, and the reading habits of the 1990s and the 2000s.
Today’s bestseller lists are, and have been for the last two-three decades, over-run by the professionals—pulp and popular fiction writers like Danielle Steele, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell. Once in a very long while, a Salman Rushdie or Umberto Eco breaks through the ranks of the branded pulp writer, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Back in the 1960s, when The Godfather came out, pulp writers shared space with some of the finest literary writers of the time—J D Salinger, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow held their own in the popularity stakes. And it’s interesting to note that The Godfather comes in at number two on the list of 1960s bestsellers—not number one.
The other point is that Puzo himself didn’t see The Godfather as a book about crime and violence and the Mafia. He saw it as a book about the family: business is just business, something you shouldn’t take personal, but betrayal of family ties, loyalty to the family, the upholding of family values—these are the strongest and most insistent themes of The Godfather. Italian-Americans have had a complex relationship with the book, but for readers across the world, The Godfather is beloved in part because it is the saga of the classic large, warm and utterly dysfunctional family. (Small wonder that Puzo has so many fans in India, where the Corleones, with a few tiny shifts, could so easily be the Capoors.)
As a final aside, the book that outsold The Godfather was also about a man from immigrant America, torn by guilt because of his complex relationship with his parents, rendered practically impotent by the grinding and contradictory demands of the family versus his personal freedom. The number one bestseller of the 1960s was Philip Roth’s classic Portnoy’s Complaint—a book that in a very different way from The Godfather, but with similar intensity, features a renegade son in search of a solution to his problems. Michael Corleone finds his by taking over the reins of the “family business”; Alexander Portnoy finds his on the psychoanalyst’s couch, and forty years down the line, we still read both in search of our own answers.