'The Don' as Tom Paine

August 22, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Let's be clear about this. Mario Puzo's sentimental Mafia novels are about as accurate in portraying that barony of organized crime as Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" is accurate in portraying the Middle Ages.

However, much of the irresistible charm of both Scott's supposedly historical and Mr. Puzo's supposedly documentary novels is their exuberant emancipation from the deadening ballast of fact.

Well, if America's cultural alchemy can turn "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" into a musical cartoon with a happy ending, why be surprised when Mr. Puzo turns Chianti-stained thugs of the Mafia into men both noble and clever?

Perhaps one reason Americans love his make-believe Mafia is that it, unlike so many other contemporary institutions, is stupendously competent at everything it does, from money laundering to mayhem. (Never mind that if the Mafia were as competent as Mr. Puzo says, John Gotti would not be living out his life in a maximum security cell in southern Illinois.)

Now Mr. Puzo returns. His novel "The Last Don" is the perfect beach book -- merrily implausible and suitable for reading in one long gulp.

Last novel?

"The Godfather" has sold about 21 million copies since it was published in 1969, making it one of the best selling novels in the four centuries since Cervantes saddled up Rocinante for Don Quixote and pretty much invented the novel. Mr. Puzo, at age 75, offers what may be his last novel about Mafia dons -- unless his publisher makes him an offer he can't refuse.

"The Last Don," which weaves in and out of Las Vegas and Hollywood, portrays the latter as the moral inferior of the former. And it portrays the Mafia as the last bastion of family values. Family is fiercely defended by men who are killers and utility infielders -- they can play many roles -- of the criminal class. But they are nonetheless noble, as Mr. Puzo depicts them.

For his gentrified Mafia, the family is everything because society and the state are nothing but infringements on the freedom of proud, masterless men.

In "The Godfather" the author said of his criminals, "They were those rarities, men who had refused to accept the rule of organized society, men who refused the dominion of other men." Don Corleone was sort of a Tom Paine for our time.

The epigraph for "The Godfather" was from Balzac: "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." The point was that the moral distinction between normal business and business as practiced by the Mafia is indistinct.

Having discovered that denouncing society's "hypocrisy" is very big business indeed, Mr. Puzo says rubbish like this (in New York magazine): "I happen to think that businesspeople are far more ruthless, far more criminal, than the Mafia. When you get a big company with big lawyers, what is that but having gunmen who can roll you right over?"

But Mr. Puzo can be witty, as when explaining how Don Clericuzio acquired his immigrant's love of America: "Early on he had been told the famous maxim of American justice, that it is better that a hundred guilty men go free than that one innocent man be punished. Struck almost dumb by the beauty of the concept, he became an ardent patriot."

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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