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From Dusk 'Til Don

Carol Gino

He Should Have Written It Better: Even by the low standards of modern-day movie novelizations, Mario Puzo disappoints.

Mario Puzo steals from himself in new Mafia novel, 'The Last Don'

By Allen Barra

A FEW YEARS AGO, drugstore book racks were filled with "novelizations" of current films, many of them written by good novelists using pen names because they didn't want to be associated with trash. Standards have declined sharply in recent years. Now, the trashy novelizations are written ahead of time by bad writers, like Mario Puzo's The Last Don.

Puzo has propagated a myth that he was once a serious novelist who turned to writing commercial crap because his early books didn't sell--or in his famous phrase, "If I'd have known The Godfather would be read by so many people, I'd have written it better." (Can you imagine Francis Ford Coppola saying, "If I'd have known it was going to be seen by so many people, I'd have directed it better"?)

This is classic self-delusion. Puzo's first two novels, The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim, weren't that good. In fact, they weren't as good as The Godfather, which itself would be unread today if Puzo hadn't learned the tricks of writing books ready-made for the movies.

The Last Don is garbage even by the semiliterate standards of The Godfather. In fact, The Last Don is The Godfather on steroids. The Mafia folk in the new novel are sicker, commit more gruesome murders and have more syllables in their names. (Dante Clericuzio, Croccifixio De Lena, Athena Aquitane--Puzo seems to have culled his character names from Burckhardt's studies of the Italian Renaissance.)

If The Last Don had been written by anyone else, Puzo could have sued for plagiarism and won. The Last Don is about an all-powerful Sicilian-American Mafia chieftain, Domenico Clericuzio; he's got three sons and partnership in a thriving Las Vegas casino; and he wants to turn the family's business legit. The story opens with a huge-scale family party. Stop me if you're heard this before, because Puzo obviously hasn't.

The Last Don reads as if it had been written by Damon Runyon in Esperanto, then translated back into English by Robert Ludlum. It made some sense in The Godfather for characters to talk in a stilted way--they were immigrants and children of immigrants and learned to speak English literally. But it does not make sense for the sons and grandsons of the same characters to be talking in the same clunky manner after four years at the Wharton School of Business. Nearly every time a character in The Last Don speaks, it creates the effect of dubbing in a Godzilla movie. You think, "These words could not possibly have come out of this mouth. People did not speak like this even 40 years ago."

Nor did they write this poorly. There is, for instance, the Clericuzio child who "learned all the classic peasant Italian dishes at his mother's knee" (how did she get all that food cooked with a kid in her lap?). Nearly every sentence that goes on for more than 25 words seems to be in the first-draft stage: "A movie star's charisma is so powerful that it seems as if their adult images as heroes, as beauties, had sprung full grown out of the head of Zeus."

The character insights are all flash-card stuff: "Don Domenico led his family to the very heights of power. He did so with a Borgia-like cruelty and a Machiavellian subtleness." Some sentences are so enigmatically dumb you can't begin to decipher them: "They will go to Disneyland that blessing in happiness and trouble."

Worst of all, there are seemingly endless weepy justifications for selling out delivered by a drunken novelist named Ernest Vail: "I'm a real writer, I write novels to appeal to the mind. That kind of writing is a very backward technology. It can't stand up against movies." And: "Movies are making novels irrelevant. What's the point of writing a lyrical passage about nature. ... What's the use when you can see it on the movie screen in Technicolor?" This is silly. Why not argue that you can go outside and see a real sunset, so why do we need movies? Novels are irrelevant only to writers who can't conceive of any purpose for writing them besides selling them to the movies.

As movie fodder, The Last Don is miniseries stuff at best--Scarlett to The Godfather's Gone With the Wind. Puzo should quit whining about the movie business. His problem isn't movies. He knew a lot of people were going to read it. He should have written it better.

The Last Don, by Mario Puzo; Random House; 482 pages; $25.95 cloth.

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From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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