Some people call me a Godfather purist because I refuse to recognize that a part III was ever made. Well, I’m not a purist and it’s important to settle that issue before reviewing Ed Falco’s prequel novel, The Family Corleone.
But I’m not a fantasist either. I know that a film was made by Francis Ford Coppola and several other whores with some connection to the original two movies and that they called it Godfather III but it’s no more part of the original canon than David Soul’s ill-advised eighties television series Casablanca was a prequel to the other greatest movie ever made.
Now that’s settled, the Family Corleone takes place roughly ten years before the first Godfather begins and tells the story of Vito Corleone’s rise from a middle-level capo to the powerful don of the original book and movie. It’s based, if you choose to believe it, on an unproduced screenplay by Mario Puzo but if I were trying to give credibility to a new contribution to such an entrenched legacy that’s exactly the sort of story I’d make up.
America is in the grips of the Depression, Prohibition is coming to an end and Sonny Corleone is a 17 year old hothead as the action opens on a story which draws heavily from the historical events which ended the reign of “boss of bosses” Salvatore Maranzano and facilitated the rise of the Genovese crime family, in much the same way that the original Godfather borrows from the rise of the Gambino mob. This adds a degree of predictability to the story but that’s rather in the nature of a prequel. In any case the historical inevitability detracts not even a little from a book so self-aware that it reads like devoted fan-fic. Sonny even at one point says “bada-bing” with reference to shooting someone in the head and, frankly, I cringed.
And the book is mostly like that. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that Falco was under contract to include a minimum number of references to Michael’s quiet intelligence and Fredo’s weak stupidity and there are aspects that appear to betray the heavy involvement of a committee of stake-holders and accountants and lawyers. Which of course means that there’s little controversial in the Family Corleone. There’s not a lot to quibble about for purists and that means, sadly, that there’s not a lot recommend it to anyone else.
This narrow path charted by Falco also means that there are few unfamiliar characters or motivations and almost no surprises. The story manages to revolve mainly and improbably around Sonny, Tom Hagen and Luca Brasi and the few risks the plot does take only serve, for me at least, to undermine aspects of the original book which are better left alone and aloof from explanation and exploitation.
Stylistically Falco hits the nail directly on the head and reproduces the hurried, under-edited prose of Puzo to a nicety. He switches with blind ease between conversational and formal, misuses words and even in one instance refers to the reader as “you”. Like Puzo’s watershed work, details are selected for inclusion randomly rather than by measure of relevance and everyone speaks perfect English but resorts to the most popular Italian expletives from the film. And I’m going to say that this is the most authentic aspect of the book because as important as it is and as excellent a foundation as it served for a great movie, the Godfather is not a good book. In many ways, chiefly the absence of any bizarre subplot concerning the unique medical complaint of one of Sonny’s many lovers, The Family Corleone is the better book.
And it’s satisfying. Much like reading the decidedly imperfect novel by Mario Puzo is a pleasant manner in which to revisit the Godfather without abusing the movie, this faithful homage is simple and satisfying and safe.