Puzo's 'Last Don': greed, death, sex!


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

A graying Sicilian patriarch stands on the balcony of his Long Island estate, surveying the festivities on the lawn below. His guests, the usual Mafia kingpins and trusted lieutenants, sip wine and eat rare cheeses. Children cavort nearby. An orchestra plays.

It's a christening for the newest members of the Don's family, his nephew and his grandson. Their names are, get this, Crossifixio and Dante. You just know there's going to be hell to pay when these little guys grow up.

So begins the latest of Mario Puzo's trademark Mafia sagas, it is a propulsive tale of power, greed, deceit and, oh yes, murder. Lots and lots of murder. And sex, so much sex it'll make you numb.

A lot of other predictable stuff happens before Puzo's Cain and Abel finally try to whack each other. A dark family secret is revealed. The code of honor gets violated. And truckloads of premium victuals are consumed.

No, it's not another book about Vito Corleone and kin. Puzo wore out that brooding clan in "The Godfather" and all its sequels - reducing a Great American Novel about the immigrant experience into something far less: a ubiquitous genre, the mob epic.

Now, Puzo is sending another family down the same familiar tracks, driven along by preposterous plot twists and coincidence.

Like Don Corleone, Don Domenico Clericuzio dreams of transforming his felonious holdings into a legitimate empire so his sons can live as prosperous, law-abiding citizens. He wants to erase the trail of blood that ties their future to his past.

But unlike Don Corleone, Clericuzio is deprived by Puzo of his historical context as a refugee from the poverty and fascist oppression of his rocky homeland. Instead, this Don is merely a vengeful overlord - the central figure in a cast of one-dimensional stock players, most of them evil.

After massacring the rival Santadio family, the Don orchestrates an alliance of the remaining families, pyramids his interest in a Las Vegas casino into state lotteries, then props up a corrupt Nevada governor who becomes a U.S. senator. The Don's ultimate goal: nothing less than an act of Congress legalizing nationwide sports betting.

Where the hell is the FBI during all this? Puzo simply assures us that the Don is too smart for the feds. Enough said.

At home, Clericuzio sets his sons up in legitimate businesses. And as young Crossifixio matures, the Don sends him west to study under the great Alfred Gronevelt - the family's genius casino operator.

This turns out to be a stroke of good fortune for Cross when Gronevelt dies a bachelor and wills his share in the Xanadu Hotel to his student, giving him the means to dabble in Hollywood movie financing.

Luckily for Cross, his sister happens to be a screenwriter for powerhouse Loddstone Studios - and the best friend of Athena Aquitane, the achingly beautiful "Bankable" star with the jealous ex-husband who wastes no time seducing Cross into murder.

You guessed it. Dante is left out in the cold. Hot tempered, ill-suited for schooling, he is appointed by the Don to be the family "Hammer," or enforcer - a post Dante uses to plot the assassination of his better-looking cousin so he can take over the family's booming gambling business.

Thus do the worlds of the mob, Vegas and Hollywood collide, requiring the Don in his dotage to rescue their fortune again with a goodly amount of bloodletting.

In the end, the book is genre writing at its best. A barn burner by the man who invented the form, it entertains rather than illuminates. For those who loved the complexity and moral ambiguity of "The Godfather," read it again and wait for Puzo's new book to come out on video.

Jim Haner is a reporter for The Sun, who has concentrated on coverage of police, courts and criminal justice in his 12-year career. He has worked for the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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