Prizzi family values: mostly money

March 20, 1994|By Bill Kent

Among the signs of our times is a lack, some might say a dearth, of Mafia novels. A relic of the glamorous, insensitively macho '60s, those debonair patriarchs and their nattily dressed henchmen wheezing about honor while shooting hapless people in the head met a fate similar to that of James Bond, that other '60s icon of sex, sophistication and gratuitous violence: death due to an inability to be taken seriously.

It's ironic that some of the people who created these pop-culture heroes helped, wittingly or not, to kill them off. Mario Puzo wrote "The Godfather," the book that not only invented the genre but so thoroughly mythologized mobsterism that actual criminals began to imitate its characters. Mr. Puzo dragged his gloomy Corleone family back and forth through history in novels and movie collaborations with director Francis Coppola. He finally heaved the dense "Godfather III" before a public that, having seen Martin Scorsese's revisionist film "Goodfellas," no longer could shed a tear for the moral problems of superficially charming men who were, and always have been, repugnant social parasites.

Among those who gleefully hammered nails in "The Godfather's" coffin is Richard Condon, a writer of campy, paranoid thrillers that typically pit a lone individual against a seemingly omnipotent force or organization. His "Manchurian Candidate," in which an effortlessly brainwashed American soldier returns to his native land as a programmed assassin, perfectly captured the fear and vulnerability of Cold War America. Though not as successful a film, Mr. Condon's "Winter Kills" built upon conspiracy theories surrounding a thinly fictionalized Kennedy assassination, brilliantly reframing it as a conflict in -- of all things -- family values.

While Mr. Condon's straight thrillers, especially those that were filmed, established his reputation, many of his 26 novels have been darkly cynical satires. A former screenwriter and Hollywood publicist, he is best remembered for "Prizzi's Honor," a best-selling '80s Mafia spoof that, as a novel, suggested that organized crime was fundamentally a business, and that its patriarchal leaders were not as worldly-wise as they were greedy, coarse and fatuously vain. It took the late director John Huston to translate the novel into a film that mocked the '80s yuppie ethic and won Huston's daughter, Anjelica, an Academy Award.

Mr. Condon has since written two additional books about the Prizzi family, and he gave the family a walk-on role in "The Final Addiction," his labored, 1991 spoof of the Bush administration and the Republican political machine. In every outing, the Prizzi family emerges triumphant and secure because, in Mr. Condon's cynical universe, they are merely reasserting what is, to him, the ultimate American family values: Blood might be thicker than water, but money is more important.

In "Prizzi's Money," the fourth book in the Prizzi chronicles, Mr. Condon reworks the premise of "Prizzi's Honor" in a plot so preposterous that it frequently degenerates to farce. Once again, a supremely clever and beautiful woman, Julia Asbury, threatens the Prizzis when John, her wealthy, politically connected husband, is kidnapped.

We swiftly learn that John Asbury's diverse empire of 137 companies is on the brink of financial ruin, having been a money-laundering front for the omnipotent Prizzi family. It's the same family that John and Julia hired to stage the kidnapping as part of a complicated double cross that would bleed off millions from the Prizzis. The Asburys planned to use the money to escape to Argentina, where they would buy new faces, new fingerprints and new, anonymous identities.

When the Prizzis kill John for his chutzpah, Julia manipulates the news media while squeezing even more money from the Prizzis. She manages to keep secret the fact that she is not the upper-class society spendthrift that she seems, but rather the American-born Sicilian daughter of a Prizzi family enforcer, with all the beauty and cunning such genetic heritage implies.

Julia miraculously outwits the Prizzis at every turn (she even refuses a Prizzi-financed run for the U.S. Senate) until the aging Don Corrado Prizzi capitulates by commanding his 67-year-old unmarried son, Edward, who is head of the family's multibillion-dollar legitimate enterprises, to marry her.

A book so over-the-top needs a bottom, a sense of reality or urgency to propel the story forward. With the exception of wondrously well-researched accounts of food, fashion and working-class foibles (Julia's Sicilian-born father, when seeing an 18th-century portrait adorning her luxuriously appointed penthouse apartment, says, "A woman like you can't afford new paintings?"), "Prizzi's Money," like most of Mr. Condon's satires, is wildly inconsistent.

We get several devastatingly cynical, genuinely funny observations about the mob, the media and America's moneyed classes, but these are lost in self-indulgent asides, ludicrous plot twists and a heroine so coldly resourceful that it's hard to feel concerned when Don Corrado demands her death.

Unlike the similarly uneven "Final Addiction," in which the conclusion tied up so many comic threads, "Prizzi's Money" doesn't end as much as it stops, leaving the possibility of yet another volume in the saga. Money can't buy love, but it can keep romance -- and book series -- going far longer than necessary.

Mr. Kent's next mystery novel, "On a Blanket With My Baby," will be published this fall. He lives in Philadelphia.

Title: "Prizzi's Money"

Author: Richard Condon

Publisher: Crown

Length, price: 241 pages, $20

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