Michael Carlson

Carlson's American Eye
Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to Shots a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....
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The Godfather’s Revenge

Mark Winegardner

Heinemann, £16.99 ISBN 0434015601

The Godfather's Revenge cover


The task, if not art, of writing sequels to someone else’s fiction is generally a thankless one.  The best you can hope for is to be acknowledged as having carried on someone else’s creation in a faithful way.  Try to innovate, or alter, and you run the risk of both alienating the converted and not impressing the sterner critics, who don’t really care what happens to someone else’s franchise anyway.


But with publishers bringing forth dreck like prequels and sequels to Pride & Prejudice (I have my own ideas: how about AHAB’S LEG, a prequel to Moby Dick, or revisit Dickens with LET’S TWIST AGAIN, or a modern Proust, with attitude, like YOU’LL NEVER EAT MADELEINES IN THIS TOWN AGAIN) it is refreshing to read this book, which does pretty much what you would hope a successor to Mario Puzo would try to do.  That is, offer a pulpy story in a serious way, written cleanly but not flashily, with some insight along the way.


Interesting enough, Winegardner offers his own coded take on the process in a coda to the novel, wherein the manuscript written by one gangster and perhaps improved on by his widow is then given to an unsuccessful novelist with artistic ambitions, who turns it into a best-seller, much like Puzo himself.  If you go back and read the original GODFATHER, what impresses is the way Puzo’s style is so smooth, the way he moves from broad brush strokes to finely detailed close-ups.  It’s a technique used by historical novelists with varying degrees of success: it can provide a template for extended tree-killing doorstop books, or it can, as it did with THE GODFATHER, help lift pulpy material.


Winegardner, interestingly enough, has written one historical novel that I’ve read.  VERA CRUZ BLUES doesn’t fall into that blockbuster category; it’s a finely detailed study of baseball players in the Mexican League during a brief period, just after World War II, when that league tried to compete with the Major Leagues in the USA.  It features real characters, including Ernest Hemingway, if I remember right, and my memory of it says that the mix of fiction and fact was done deftly, that the characters, real or created, all were convincing, and that it was one of the very best baseball novels I’ve read (and before you scoff, remember that little genre includes work by Philip Roth, Robert Coover, and Bernard Malamud, among others).  Winegardner also wrote a brilliant study of a baseball scout, PROPHET OF THE SANDLOTS, but that’s another story.


THE GODFATHER’S REVENGE picks up the saga after the events of the second Godfather film, and specifically deals with a thinly disguised assassination of 

John Kennedy.  In many ways this is the least satisfying part of the novel, partly because we already know so much, and so little, about the murder (something the author admits in his fictional assassination) but also because it has been the subject of some pretty convincing works of fiction already, so getting it ‘in disguise’ as it were is less than satisfying.


Mark Winegardner On the other hand, Winegardner’s strength lies in the way he brings the family issues to life: the brilliance of the original novel and even more its first two filmed adaptation, was the way the family was made to act as a mirror, often a distorted one, for the activities of the crime ‘families’, and the way the latter were just as dysfunctional, if more deadly, than the former.  Here he gets to contrast life within the Corleone family with that of Nick Gerasi, the former underboss now on the run from the Corleones.  He also knows how to build his story carefully, before revealing what has been hidden throughout to the reader. It may seem less than satisfying, but it reflects the progress of the plot itself.  He’s also fine on the ways the political relationships of America reflect the mob as well.  The 1964 New York World’s Fair gives ample opportunity to portray Robert Moses as the government-appointed gangster he was, and there’s a brilliant description of the ‘Most Special Fellows’, chappies recruited by the CIA from the Ivy League, who were ‘made rich despite their lack of dedication or business acumen, and positioned to run for public office…children of privilege in the heartland, playing the role of the common man.  Millions of voters bought the act.’  Sound like any presidential son of a former CIA director (and incidently President) you know?


Most importantly, Winegardner has the ability to keep the personal elements engrossing while moving the big picture along.  This melding of personal drama with historical drama, of fact and fiction, drives the plot, rather than vice versa.  It does Puzo proud.  I just wish the art department had been able to come up with a better cover: this one has someone who looks like a Brit-pack wannabe dressed up as a heads-up poker player swallowing cigar smoke.  Doesn’t work on virtually every level you might imagine.  Next time, I’ll make them an artistic offer they can’t refuse.

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