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OMERTA 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 ferocious drive.

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.