Sunday, 27 May 2012

Family Business

This book was great. That surprised me. And I didn't have to read the previous novels. My liking for this book doesn't really show in this review, and I didn't plan on writing so much about it. Once I started, however, I couldn't stop.

A dying breed of crook

first published in The Star, 27 May 2012

Apparently, Paramount Pictures had "allowed" the release of The Godfather Returns in 2004, the sequel to the original Godfather novel. But the next sequel, said to have been released without Paramount's knowledge in 2006 by the estate of Mario Puzo, reportedly didn't do so well.

“The Family Corleone”
Perhaps that's why Paramount, which claims it has rights over the Godfather franchise, sued to keep The Family Corleone, the "unauthorised" third book and possible bomb, from publication. Anthony Puzo, son of the late Mario and executor of his dad's estate, responded with a countersuit. A deal has since been struck to allow the book to be published, but nobody can be sure if there will be lasting peace between the two parties.

That's another book – or movie – by itself, but I'm talking about The Family Corleone today. It's a fine book, and it made me wonder if this legal battle is really about protecting the "legacy" of the franchise.

Set in the years 1933 to 1935, the prequel to The Godfather charts the rise of Vito Corleone from olive oil tauke to godfather of the New York crime families. A lot of this book also tells how Santino "Sonny" Corleone, Vito's impatient and reckless eldest son, came to follow in his father's footsteps.

Said to be adapted from unpublished material written by Puzo, it is divided into two "books" or arcs. "Mostro" (Monster) explores a bit about Vito and Sonny's pasts and how the latter, as a kid, came to know about his dad's other business. Years later, he's head of his own gang and shows how he's unlike his old man by robbing the liquor shipments of a powerful mob boss and selling the fruits of one such heist to the monster of this arc, the violent psychopath Luca Brasi.

The "Guerra" (War) arc kicks off soon after Vito finds out about Sonny's extracurricular activities, and that's when things get bloody for the Corleones and everybody else.

(I know some of you reading this online probably have or are going to open an extra window or tab with Wikipedia on, so I won't be telling you anything else about the plot. But I got help for the two Italian words from the glossary at the back. Thing is, 'bout half of 'em are swear words.)

The novel has a cinematic feel to it. Even the narration occasionally lapses into the informal lingo many of the characters use, lending it a certain warmth and familiarity.

Sprinklings of Italian add flavour to the delightfully engaging dialogue, from the Corleones' dinner table conversations and the salty, profanity-peppered exchanges between Sonny's gang members to the tense gangster round table conferences and "interrogation" sessions.

These guys are witty, charming and friendly. They can also pop your kneecaps or lop off your hands one heartbeat after you answer, "Oh, mother's fine, and the kid brother's in school, thanks for askin'." That being said, reading these guys lob racial epithets at each other, even in jest, can make one uncomfortable.

It's the closest you'll ever get to "watch" it, at least until the film adaptation comes out, if at all. Any other style wouldn't do.

Being what it is, there are some uncanny moments. At one point, Vito pays Luca Brasi a visit, seemingly unarmed and alone, and comes away unscathed. Several other characters escape death because of some unwritten code of honour or character quirk and stuff like that. But that's the stuff gangster movies – and novels – are made of.

Kudos goes to Ed Falco for his work on this novel. Incidentally, he's the uncle of Edith "Edie" Falco, who acted in The Sopranos, the TV series about an Italian-American mobster and his family.

I find myself thinking, though, whether the Mafia is still good grist for the fiction mill in the 21st century. What's the deal with mobster-inspired crime fiction, anyway?

So I look up a former chef turned author, who suggested in an essay that "...for purposes of fiction, organised criminality offers plenty of drama, ... plenty of situations in which characters find themselves in extreme circumstances with presumably difficult choices to make." Chef-Turned-Author also said that "All the real gangsters have seen The Godfather, One, Two, and maybe Three. They've seen Goodfellas. And these films made a powerful impression." No better seal of approval than that.

I suppose the kind of drama associated with the old-time gangsters offer writers opportunities to paint convincing psychological portraits of what would be complex characters that audiences can connect with. Another appealing aspect of such works, goes another school of thought, is the notion of honour. One tends to believe that it's Vito Corleone's conduct that inspires his capos' loyalty to him, a valuable asset in the long run. Who wouldn't want to work for a boss like that? Or be a boss like that?

But the Corleones' era seems to be over. And there are more bad guys out there now: religious fanatics, computer hackers, evil scientists, ecoterrorists and maybe even rogue Wall Street elements, plus a new breed of gangster who's all about bling, turf and power, and not much else.

Though some may feel that the novel's release is just business for the Puzos, I'd like to think that it has emerged as one last encore by the titular family whose on-screen exploits will, perhaps, forever remain legend. And what an encore it is.

Viva i Corleone.

The Family Corleone
Ed Falco
Grand Central Publishing (May 2012)
436 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4555-1616-2


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