Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Godfather Returns, by Mark Winegardner

The Godfather Returns, by Mark Winegardner

I'm a huge fan of the epic The Godfather and of course the movies. (The movies currently make up the best movie trilogy of all time, although I suspect Spider-Man will capture this crown next spring. But I digress.) Trying to follow in the footsteps of Puzo is no easy task, but Winegardner does an admirable job. It covers the period of time from the purge where Michael takes control of the families (as seen at the end of the first movie) to a few years after the death of Fredo (Fredo dies at the end of the second movie; the book continues on a bit).

For the most part, I really enjoyed this book. The characters are consistent (mostly consistent anyway; Johnny Fontaine was not a whiner here) with previous renditions, and the plot meshes well with the established canon. The style is much like Puzo, complete with graphic violence and extended flashbacks (we see what made Michael a war hero, for instance). Combined with an interesting plot this makes for a really good read. What wasn't so good was the heavy blurring of fictional and real characters. Johnny Fontaine in the originals was clearly a nod to Frank Sinatra, but there Fontaine was a whiner that owed his entire success to the mob where Sinatra clearly was friendly with organized crime but had an undeniable talent. In this book Fontaine becomes much more Sinatra-like, winning an Oscar, becoming the top musical draw in the country, and becoming part owner in a casino. I found this distracting, and it only got worse. A political family named Shea that is a dead ringer for the Kennedy family is introduced, complete with an arrogant ambassador patriarch who got his start running liquor and one son getting elected President and another being the Attorney General. There is even a scene where President Shea visits the West Coast and doesn't stay with Fontaine, causing Johnny to physically destroy a helicopter pad he'd had built. There is a sequel in the works where this analogy appears to be continued; the preview text strongly hints at a Presidential assassination. While this strong parallel to our world didn't ruin this novel, it did kill a great deal of suspense as it was clear what was going to happen.

This is an interesting sequel because it assumes both the book and the movies as source material. While with the vast majority of films adapted from the written word take some liberties and thus have inconsistencies, it isn't so jarring here—the first film was so faithful to the novel it was named Mario Puzo's The Godfather rather than just The Godfather. It has been at least 20 years since I read the book but was able to pick up the characters and events quickly because the movies had kept them fresh. If you haven't read The Godfather or seen the movie saga, this book isn't going to make much sense. If you loved the originals, though, you will enjoy this as well, even if only for the sense of nostalgia you'll get by seeing favorite characters in new situations.

First Sentence:
One a cold spring Monday afternoon in 1955, Michael Corleone summoned Nick Giraci to meet him in Brooklyn.

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