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(Originally Published Nov. 27, 2004)

An Offer You Could Refuse

Die-hard fans will gobble up Godfather sequel; others may appreciate it, too

Book Review:
The Godfather Returns
430pp, $37.95 (in Canada), Random House

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who know Enzo the Baker and who appreciate the significance of the line: "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." And everybody else.

Enzo is a minor character in Mario Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather, the gazillion-selling mobster saga that launched a cultural genre extending from Goodfellas to The Sopranos to Coca-Cola commercials. And the gun/cannoli line is one of countless clichés that occur only in the movie version, winner of the best-picture Oscar for 1972.

In all, the Corleone family and its exploits have spawned three movies and two novels. Al Pacino will, for millions of people, always be Michael Corleone. Ditto Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen and Abe Vigoda as Sally Tessio. But there has been nothing new since Godfather Part III in 1990. And Puzo died in 1999, leaving fans with little choice but to indulge in repeated re-readings and re-viewings. But now, happily, relief is at hand.

The Godfather Returns picks up in 1955, a year after the end of the first novel and the first movie. And it covers 1959-1962, the period following the second movie. It's plain that if the book does well (as of this writing, it's gone into a fourth printing), there will be sequels covering the time between 1962 and the events of Part III in 1979-1980.

Author Mark Winegardner was chosen in 2003 to continue the Puzo oeuvre. There is precedent for this kind of commission; Kingsley Amis and John Gardner were both tapped to produce James Bond novels after the death of Ian Fleming nearly 40 years ago.

Winegardner wisely choses to find his own narrative style rather than emulate Puzo's spare, stark prose. Instead, the author concentrates on attempting to recreate the extraordinary characters of the original novel. Here, he succeeds with mixed results.

A key to the success of the Puzo novel was, oddly, the two-dimensionality of most characters. While Michael Corleone and a handful of others were drawn in great detail, most of the rest of the cast were not too complex. There were loyal characters and venal characters and treacherous characters -- all defined by their single traits. It was left up to the reader to fill in the missing aspects of these lives. And over the years, we all have.

We still have Michael Corleone rendered in wonderfully complex shadings. But now, there is a lot more to the loyal Tom Hagen and Pete Clemenza. Sally Tessio, making an early and brief appearance, is also drawn in more detail. And the pitifully weak Fredo Corleone, already a loser of vast proportions in all that has gone before, is spelled out with even more pathos in this novel. This jars the long-established personalities given to these people by readers over the last 35 years. But, perhaps, this is just the lament of a fan and a purist. If you're new to the saga, it may work well for you.

Fans and purists will appreciate the helpful little plot addendas that Winegardner so thoughtfully provides. We learn exactly how the treacherous Tessio dies. And we get detail on the passing of the loyal Clemenza. There is a lot more about the scheming of the non-New York families. And, in a neat twist, one of two young thugs who made a brief appearance in the original novel returns in this work as a major character who comes close to destroying Michael Corleone.

Winegardner also continues another Puzo tradition, that of the roman à clef. Guess who "President James Kavanaugh Shea" is? Would it help to know that Shea's brother, Daniel Brendan Shea, is the attorney-general? Or that his father, Ambassador M. Corbett Shea, is a former bootlegger? There's also a black entertainer who converted to Judaism and who hangs out with Johnny Fontane, himself understood to be a proxy for a celebrated Italian-American crooner with unsavoury associations. And then there's the starlet who has an affair with President Shea. You get the idea.

If you're a Godfather fan, you'll get this book just for the pleasure of reading it all in a weekend. If you're not a fan, try it anyway and see what the fuss is all about.

Email to joel@joelruimy.com

Copyright © 2004 Joel Ruimy

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