Bruce Fretts
July 14, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
Mario Puzo
Random House
, Fiction

We gave it a D

The day Francis Ford Coppola agreed to direct The Godfather was the luckiest day of Mario Puzo’s life. In an act of sheer cinematic alchemy, Coppola took Puzo’s best-selling gangland potboiler and transformed it into one of the great works of American film art.

Puzo received co-screenwriting credits — and a pair of Oscars — for the three Godfather movies, yet that didn’t make him a better novelist. He churned out more Mob books, including The Sicilian and The Last Don, the essential weaknesses of which were revealed when they were adapted by filmmakers far less talented than Coppola (Sicilian was directed by a post-Heaven’s Gate Michael Cimino; Don spawned two mediocre CBS miniseries).

With his final Mafia novel, the just-published Omerta, Puzo (who died in July 1999) cements his standing as the Harold Robbins of the organized-crime genre. In Omerta, a young couple don’t just make love — they become ”intimate with all the hot furiousness of youth.” A grieving daughter doesn’t just cry — she weeps ”as if she would weep forever.” And the security at a Mob boss’ headquarters is, yes, ”as tight as Fort Knox.” When Puzo attempts to turn an original phrase, the results are disastrous: A corrupt Peruvian official has ”a finger in a dozen pies, all of which had fillings of pure gold.” Sure, it sounds nice, but what the hell’s a gold pie?

What’s worse, Omerta merely reheats the same story Puzo had served up more than once before: An internecine war is triggered by the death of ”the last of the true Mafia chiefs.” (Oops, guess The Last Don was actually the penultimate don.) Don Zeno passes away in Sicily and designates his 2-year-old son Astorre as his successor. The child grows up in America and ultimately must fight to save the family’s banks from being taken over by money-laundering drug lords. Too bad Puzo didn’t learn from the nearly incomprehensible plotline of The Godfather, Part III that international finance doesn’t often lend itself to gripping narratives.

Puzo’s stilted writing style suggests a fairy tale more than a mature work of fiction (”And so it was that Astorre Zeno was taken to America…”) and seems hopelessly old-fashioned compared with the thrillingly visceral modernism of GoodFellas and The Sopranos. As it skims over scenes and allows much of its action to take place off stage, Omerta reads like the flat first draft of a longer, better book we’ll never see. This rushed feeling is reinforced by the redundancy of Puzo’s language. Astorre’s cousin Nicole is incessantly described with some form of the word beauty (on the same page, we’re told that she’s ”beautiful” and that she possesses a ”not-quite-regular beauty”). At other times, he contradicts himself, writing that Nicole’s ill-fated teen romance with Astorre ”left no bitter scars” but later claiming that ”she had never really recovered” from it.

Omerta is so overstuffed with characters that none of them can take on more than a single dimension. In addition to numerous mafiosi, the Mob scenes encompass Kurt Cilke, an Eliot Ness-esque FBI man who ”lived in New Jersey with a wife he truly loved and a ten-year-old daughter he adored” (note the typically unevocative vocab); Rosie Conner, another of Astorre’s adolescent sweethearts, whose finely honed sexual skills he eventually uses to entrap a pair of hitmen; and Aspinella Washington, a corrupt NYPD detective who loses an eye in a car-bomb explosion, all the better for her to cry, ”This is an eye for an eye, you bastard!” when she finally gets her revenge (caution: falling symbolism!).

Whenever the plot starts to drag, Puzo just reaches into his old bag of Godfather tricks. Unholy bloodbath juxtaposed with religious ceremony? Check — a wiseguy gets whacked as he exits his grandson’s confirmation. Mutilated animals left as a warning? Check — Cilke finds his German shepherds dead in his bed with their hearts cut out.

Puzo prefaces the novel with the World Book Dictionary‘s definition of the title: ”Omerta: a Sicilian code of honor which forbids informing about crimes thought to be the affairs of the persons involved.” An oddly apt epigram, it mirrors the book’s distant tone. In the story’s context, the word has many meanings; Omerta also serves as the code name for Cilke’s gangbusting operation. But after trudging through Puzo’s malodorous prose, I consulted an Italian-English dictionary and came up with my own translation. Omerta: Oh, merda! D

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