Posthumously, Puzo completes his saga of family values

ON BOOKS

July 02, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

The year was 1967: "In the stone-filled village of Castellammare del Golfo facing the dark Sicilian Mediterranean, a great Mafia Don lay dying. Vincenzo Zeno was a man of honor, who all his life had been loved for his fair and impartial judgment, his help to those in need, and his implacable punishment of those who dared to oppose his will."

So begins the prologue of "Omerta" by Mario Puzo (Random House, 316 pages, $25.95).

Puzo died last July at 78, after a tough battle with heart disease and diabetes. He will always be remembered for "The Godfather," his third novel, published to great popularity and acclaim in 1969. Francis Ford Coppola's film of it was the top-grossing movie of all time for many years. Puzo's screenplay earned an Oscar.

His other novels include "Fools Die" (1978) and "The Sicilian" (1984). "Omerta" is the final book in a trilogy, following "The Godfather" and "The Last Don."

Puzo is destined to live on as the great chronicler of an endlessly fascinating slice of American society: The Mob. "Omerta" is the Sicilian code of silence, the glue that held romantic revolutionaries and rapacious criminals together.

So who are these people? Puzo's definition: "A true Mafioso was strong enough in his will to avenge any insult to his person or his cosca [family within the Mafia]. He could never submit to the will of another person or government agency. And in this lay his power. His own will was paramount; justice was what he decreed justice must be."

The trilogy is a seamless portrait of fraternal crime driven by this code, which arose from revolutionary rage against historic exploitation. Its origin was in protest and defiance of the cruel, arbitrary abuses of Sicilians by Northern Italian landowners and the government forces that served them.

Ultimately, all revolutionary ideals become convention. So, in this final drama, Puzo declares, "The old Mafia was dead. The great Dons had accomplished their goals and blended gracefully into society, as the best criminals always do. ... Why would anyone want to bother with the rackets when it was much easier to steal millions by starting your own company and selling shares to the public?"

Make no bones about it, this is a joyful, bloody -- and sophisticated -- romp celebrating Truth, Justice and the Sicilian Way. The venerable Don Zeno and his code are devoted to the most basic of decencies and integrity. He has left his 2-year-old son, Astorre, to be trained, first in the household of Don Raymonde Aprile, a major New York don, and then in Sicily.

When the main story line begins, Don Aprile had ruled his family for 30 years and has given away his empire. His heirs are his daughter, Nicole, a civil-libertarian lawyer; Astorre, his ward; and two sons, educated and successful in legitimate ways. He is shot down on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, leaving his grandson's confirmation service.

About one-third of the way through the book comes the introduction of Inzio Tulippa, an Argentine carrying a Costa Rican diplomatic passport, running his own drug empire and much else: "He was a revolutionary. He furiously defended the selling of drugs. Drugs were the salvation of the human spirit, the refuge of those damned to despair by poverty and mental illness. They were the salve for the lovesick, for the lost souls in our spiritually deprived world. ... Drugs kept people alive in a realm of dreams and hope. ... On moral grounds, Tulippa was secure."

There are more entertainments: corruption in the New York Police Department, illegal if nobly intentioned practices within the FBI, private lusts.

The combination of the cold, calculating politics of criminal cultures are interwoven with the immense passions of the players. A very well-positioned don in Sicily is overwhelmed with yearning for the wife of a nephew. He seduces her. He must die. His favorite nephew must see him dead and then must kill his wife -- or disappear forever lest the shame leave him ridiculous and with a life that is not livable.

There is more of such hi-jinks. Finally, at the end, everybody who's still alive lives more or less happily ever after.

Puzo's book, and his vision, immensely respect the Old Ways -- merciless, bloody, terrible -- but "honorable." Puzo was a master of of storytelling, driven by the energy of those insights and values. This is not high literature. It is entertainment -- but it's at the very forefront rank of its genre.

For all the blood and passion, Puzo's command of irony sparkles throughout this book. Witness a report of the charitable heart of the aging and retiring Don Raymonde Aprile: "Yale and Harvard refused his twenty million dollars for a dormitory to be named for Christopher Columbus, who was at the time in disrepute in intellectual circles. Yale did offer to take the money and name the dorm after Sacco and Vanzetti, but the Don was not interested in Sacco and Vanzetti. He despised martyrs."

Or this bit of folk wisdom from a gore-annealed American Mafia hit man who is fond of basketball: "Never dribble when you can pass. Never quit when you are twenty points down in the last quarter. And never go out with a woman who owns more than one cat."

As the storytelling moves on, Puzo's command of time and of the dynamics of relationships is impressive -- and at its best astonishing. He weaves in and out of time frames separated by 20 and 10 years, always the causal roots are strong and dramatically effective.

"Omerta" is irresistibly entertaining. It is also the ultimate chapter of the most serious exploration of the soul of American organized crime. It's less splendid than "The Godfather" -- but it is delicious and will be enduring. I look forward to the movie.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.