Mario Puzo’s new novel begins with an act of self-plagiarism that’s breathtaking in its brazenness. On the Long Island estate of an aging Mafia boss, a family celebration is in progress, but business continues as usual. The old man gathers his three sons, his only daughter, and his trusted-like-a-son right hand. He sends one to Las Vegas to run a hotel and another to business school. He blesses two babies who will grow up to hate each other. And he begins a decades-long plan to take the Corleones — sorry, the Clericuzios — legit.
In The Last Don, Mario Puzo violates a cardinal rule of both art and commerce: Don’t mess with perfection. Although his 1969 novel, The Godfather, was no classic, the first two films it spawned (both of which he cowrote) are enduring masterpieces, and to trifle with the same topic as Puzo does here is unseemly. It’s as if Arthur Miller suddenly decided he had one more really good idea for a play about a salesman left in him.
And The Last Don isn’t just a wan revisitation of The Godfather; it’s Godfather minestrone, with some bones from part one, some beans from part two, and a little hint of something from part three all tossed into the pot together — and mamma mia, does Puzo ladle it on thick. ”What the Don could not foresee were the seeds of evil in as yet unformed human minds,” he writes. Whatever the Don’s strengths, he’s clearly not a connoisseur of the trashy novel, or he might have picked up on the dire portents that float to the surface of the book’s opening chapter like…well, you know what floats. And it ain’t literature.
Puzo seems to realize this, because he quickly backs off and turns The Last Don into something else entirely — a strange, off-pitch novel of Hollywood. Although the plot remains entangled with the evil brewing in those unformed human minds, it relocates to the movie business with equally musty results. Athena Aquitane (beautiful, talented, and, in the author’s overcapitalized parlance, a Bankable Star) walks off the set of her $100 million Roman epic, Messalina, and refuses to complete the film, so terrified is she that her husband, a demented stalker, will kill her if he finds her. When the studio’s entreaties fail, in comes Cross De Lena, a dashing member of the Clericuzio clan. ”I can make an agreement with your husband…And I can guarantee he’ll abide by it,” he tells Athena, straining manfully not to use the phrase ”an offer he can’t refuse.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a good, sleazy movie-biz saga, and such enthusiastic chapter openings as ”Ten bare female asses rose in harmony to greet the camera’s blinking eye” surely have Jacqueline Susann slapping her knee up in heaven. But this genre demands up-to-the-minute jaundiced accuracy, and in The Last Don, Puzo is several beats behind such masters of the form as The Player‘s Michael Tolkin and The Deal‘s Peter Lefcourt. The details never convince. The agents Puzo depicts sound like pre-CAA plaid-jacketed weasels, not Armani-coated sharks. It’s hard to imagine there would ever be buzz, except in a screenwriter’s cortex, about ”a special Academy Award for rewrites.” And while $100 million is well within the range of folly for most studios, when was the last time you saw — or even heard of — a Roman epic?
There are twists, none of them surprising, as Puzo’s narrative staggers erratically from Hollywood lite to Mob gothic and back again — sudden deaths, revelations about the secrets of the Clericuzios, and endless talk of loyalty and la famiglia. ”It’s worse than the soaps, isn’t it?” says Athena. No argument there, but if CBS (which is already planning a Last Don miniseries) ever wants to launch one called The Old and the Dutiful, here’s all the raw material it’ll need. D