In Which I Read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather

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Full disclosure: I have never seen any of The Godfather movies.

I own nearly all of Béla Tarr and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s filmographies. . . but I have never seen any of The Godfather films, at least not in their entirety. This is a problem, a problem I have set out to solve. But like any good former English major, I have to read the book first, even if it proves to be 400+ pages of nothing but very creative ways to die before I can watch the three movies, each which are about three hours long of even more creative ways to die.

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I will also admit that I have a soft spot for the gangster theme in books and movies. The topic is fascinating to me, and it’s obvious why this book was so popular and remained on the bestseller list for 62 weeks after its publication in 1969. The story sucks in a reader. You absolutely have to find out what happens. The text makes you an offer you can’t refuse, and you cannot refuse to not finish this sucker.

Behind the Scenes Photos from The Godfather Trilogy (2)

There are some issues with pacing throughout the book, and though I initially had trouble  with this, I ultimately was able to move past it. Some parts of the story drag on forever, and I particularly despised having to read the saga of singer and actor Johnny Fontane, even if he did play an important role, because it detracts from the parts I wanted to hear about most: the Don’s downfall and Michael’s rise to power. Everyone else was secondary and would likely be killed in a brutal way, so there was no point in getting attached.

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One of the reasons I began to cope with the slow pacing, however, is the fact that there are nine “books” within one story (though only 3 movies). The stories jump back and forth between time and space, from 1940s New York to turn of the century Italy back to the heyday of Hollywood and then back to Sicily. There needs to be some slowing of the pace in order for the reader to fully grasp the context of the location where the characters have been placed before there is a major jump to the next location.

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Another reason why I accepted the slow pacing is the suspense building it accomplishes. Mob bosses are people too, and I can only imagine that there is a lot of downtime for them, just like everyone else. There’s a lot of sitting in cars and waiting to shoot people when they walk out of their house. There’s a lot of sitting by the phone and awaiting the next instructions. There’s a lot of hiding in plain sight from the police. It helps to build the agony of suspense as the reader waits to hear who survives the next Mafia battle.

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Ultimately, I had hoped for stronger character development with certain lead characters, especially the man himself, Don Vito Corleone. Though he is absolutely the most interesting character in all of 1960s popular lit, I feel like there is a block between who the reader knows the Don to be and who the Don really is as a human being. His transformation into mob boss extraordinaire seems almost bipolar; one second he is a quiet immigrant grocery store clerk being hustled by others, the next second, he is a meticulous, strategic killing machine who has taken power over the Underground of the entire United States. The transition is almost too sudden, too brutal, and it is difficult to reconcile. Regardless, Don Corleone remains one of my favorite characters in literary history.

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This web that makes up the Mafia in this story is very interesting to me, but the entire time I read The Godfather, I just kept asking how it was possible that Mario Puzo was not actually in the Mafia; how does someone write such a complex, intricate tale of the underground without firsthand experience and knowledge? Based on an interview from 1972, Mr. Puzo stated that he had never even met a real life gangster (probably for the best). Everything in The Godfather was based on research, which leads me to begin swooning. There’s nothing I love more than a well researched novel.

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All in all, this was a fun read, and I would recommend it to anyone who is not faint of heart. However, if you care anything about prize winning horses or become attached to characters easily, this might not be the novel for you.  But if you can stand a lot of blood and guts and want to learn some Italian words along the way, might I suggest taking The Godfather for a spin? At least you’ll be ahead of the game and get the classics out of the way early, unlike me.

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