by Mario Puzo
The computer wrote it.
By Jules Siegel
Originally published in the San
Francisco Chronicle, July 9, 2000
Omerta, Mario Puzo's posthumously published
last novel, is, at best, Puzo imitating himself very badly. At
worst, it raises speculation that Puzo did not finish the book
before he died in July, 1999, and that whatever elements he left
were handed over to some talentless hack.
In judging Omerta, it is important not to overstate
the case for The Godfather, which was really a supreme
version of the great novel as popular trash. The first 100 pages
of The Godfather unroll with devastating force, but after
that, as Puzo himself acknowledged, the novel tends to lose some
of its impact. Despite this, it is a wonderful piece of writing
in which Puzo drew convincing characters who were decidedly human
-- funny, tragic, wise, foolish.
The Godfather that world audiences cherish, however,
is really mostly the creation of Francis Ford Coppola. The movie
fully delivers on nuances only hinted at in the book. Puzo's novel
and his script collaboration (for which he and Coppola shared
the Academy Award) were a rock-solid platform, but Coppola created
or inspired the honeyed painterly light of some Dutch master,
the enchanting settings, the rich performances. The brilliant
touch of orange peels in the Godfather's death scene is 100% Marlon
Brando, not Mario Puzo.
Many observers agree that Mario Puzo's greatest work by far is
The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), an autobiographical novel
that stands right there with Chekov in terms of economy and eloquence,
but has the descriptive power of Dickens in miniature.
Here Mario Puzo wrote sentences as if carving steel. His imagery
-- the table at the end of a family feast looking like a battlefield
covered with bloody bones and carcasses, the father's crazed stare
blazing out of hydrotherapy in the insane asylum -- emphatically
dramatized the simple physical details of expression and food,
light and smell that make a story live.
Others prefer his first novel, Dark Arena (1955), without
doubt the novel of the post-World War II Occupation,
a ghastly portrait of the 20th Century reduced to the dry heaves
of defeat, not the drunken revelry of conquest.
Turning to a crime novel in order to make money after the commercial
failure of these masterpieces, Puzo added his own special depth
of social insight. He said that The Godfather wasn't
about crime, but about power and justice. The Kennedys influenced
the characterization of the Corleones, he pointed out, and he
mentioned their compound at Hyannisport as an example of how he
used elements of their lives in the novel.
He was proudest of the opening scene of The Godfather,
the judge rolling up his sleeves, the cinematic introduction of
all the main characters and themes. He said that scenes such as
the punishment of the scam artists, who tried to cheat the mother
by taking apart her furnace and then demanding a blackmailer's
ransom to put it back together again, were there to drive home
the way the lack of official justice creates a need for men like
Don Vito Corleone.
Puzo was a notably blunt stylist who had no problems about turning
to some well-used phrase to move a plot along when he was in a
hurry. But the books that followed The Godfather showed
an increasing discipline, often at the expense of The Godfather's
Omerta lacks any of this depth or precision. It
is an awkward collage of poorly constructed characters pasted
into a plot that makes almost no sense at all. The often
charming Puzo cracker-barrel philosopy is replaced by pompous
political soliloquies. There's no real detail in the food, just
empty repetitions of statements such as "He slowly peeled
a pear." The plot is preposterous. Mafia heirs struggling
to achieve legitimacy fight off a rival group who will stop at
nothing to take over the jewel of their empire, a multi-billion
dollar bank, in order to build a nuclear bomb.
When Mario Puzo wrote an adventure scene he usually had everything
well worked out in the sense of who was where and did what. Omerta
ends with a shoot-out that is absolutely incomprehensible, a kung-fu
massacre. Since it's words instead of real actors, it doesn't
even have to have even the coherence of film.
The fan of Puzo's writing turns, perhaps, to the fantasy of the
ghostwriter to rationalize avoiding what is probably the correct
analysis -- that he wrote it and it is terrible. Yet it is a compelling
theory. Mario Puzo worked with collaborators in the past and was
notoriously miserly about giving proper credit. In Fools Die
he even refers to a fake book scheme like this involving a novelist
presumably based on Norman Mailer.
There's a subplot in The Last Don about a writer (very
reminiscent of Puzo) who is so concerned about leaving his family
some money that he commits suicide in order to force the screen
rights to his novel to revert to his heirs, foiling the movie
company that screwed him on the percentages.
It is really difficult to believe that a writer who gave us such
great entertainment and, yes, even wisdom, could produce a piece
of wretched garbage like Omerta, even at the bottom of
his powers, sick and dying.
What would happens were Random House asked to produce the manuscript?
"There is no manuscript," they might answer "He
did it all on the computer." Of course. Mario Puzo wouldn't
want to see his work on paper. He'd be satisfied with reading
it on a computer screen. It's an e-book!
Shoot! No one wrote this. No one even read it. The computer did
it. It's a Turing Machine -- the famed artificial intelligence
test in which a subject tries to decide if onscreen responses
from a remote computer are really human -- and it fails.