Welcome to the Corleone family reunion, literary-sequel style. Every time you try to get out of this mythic Mafia saga, one way or another they pull you back in. Thirty-five years after the release of Mario Puzo's hard-bitten yet heart-felt bestseller -- and years after three blockbuster movies -- The Godfather Returns, indeed, in the form of a novel by Mark Winegardner. The English professor who coordinates Florida State University's (FSU) prestigious Creative Writing Program beat out a host of competitors for Random House's search for the right author to pick up where the late Puzo left off.
The 42-year-old Winegardner -- partly selected because of his similar position in his writing career as Puzo -- merrily jumped right in, taking familiar characters and events from both the book and the first two Francis Ford Coppola films (the best pair in the history of cinema) and wove in new characters and events. If nothing else, The Godfather Returns is a wonderful stitch job, with Winegardner showing the good sense to not rely too heavily on the mythology and make the story (however briefly) his own. In fact, he begins the novel with a (relatively) new character barely mentioned in Puzo's book, Nick Geraci, whom Winegardner transforms into a rising soldier in the Corleone family who quickly turns into Michael Corleone's rival.
"I made the artistic decision early on that I would neither mention or contradict the facts of The Godfather Part II," says Winegardner, who instead covers the period of 1955-1962 but sort of works around the two years inside that period that covers the sequel. "I worked hard to make it so that if you hadn't read the book or seen the movies that you could read the book and enjoy it. I still had it in mind at all times that I hoped some of my audience would be such people, that you could start here and go in any direction of the Godfather saga."
In Winegardner's sequel, Michael is trying to take his bloody victory over the other New York City crime families and translate it into legitimate success. But, like Godfather fans, it's hard to stay out. His desire to use his move to Las Vegas as a conduit to that legitimacy threatens rival dons out West, including Chicago's Louie "F--kface" Russo. The web that gets more and more tangled and draws in Nick Geraci (the first Corleone rival given any real character depth) and the hapless Fredo who, from Winegardner's keyboard, is now a closeted and self-loathing bisexual. It's like many of Winegardner's choices; logical expansions of character traits hinted previously.
"Still, only the last justified having Geraci killed," he writes of Michael's pivotal decision. "Even that might have been forgiven. There had been no betrayal. Geraci's assets easily outweighed his liabilities. Michael liked him. Sacrificing Fausto Geraci Jr., was not what Vito Corleone would have done. It was, rather, the act of a marine who'd seen at least a thousand good men die, seemingly at random: a necessary evil swapped for the chance to achieve a greater good."
The Godfather Returns sometimes quivers under the weight of Winegardner's efforts; you can't help but feel he's trapped between the writing world's of pot-boiler (which Puzo's work almost poetically was) and a truly literary work. But the effort to create new people and plots is certainly there.
Another relatively new character is the late Sonny's daughter Francesca, whom we follow from her freshman year at FSU through a courtship with ambitious rich kid Billy Van Arsdale. It is his ambition that generates suspicion as it brings him closer to the Corleone family than he might want, working for an attorney general and president that sound very much like another mythological American family: the Kennedys.
It's but one of several attempts by Winegardner, who in previous novels Crooked River Burning and The Veracruz Blues featured fictitious and real-life characters intermingling, to place the Mafia in its proper historical context. "I do an exhaustive amount of research on a book, and the subjects interesting to me are the ones that are at the core of American myth, whether it's the Mafia, Elvis, or American road trips," says Winegardner. "My goal was to maintain the almost operatic tone but also make it a lot more realistic."
Mark Winegardner will participate in a session titled "Vendettas as a Way of Life," at 12:15 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5, at the Bourbon House (144 Bourbon St.). He will also participate in the session "The Aesthetics of Literature: The Art of Writing to a Concept," at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Hotel Monteleone's Queen Anne Ballroom (241 Royal St.). For more visit www.wordsandmusic.org.
- Mark Winegardner made the editors at Random House an offer they couldn't refuse in winning the right to create his sequel, The Godfather Returns.