Before "The Sopranos," there was The Godfather. The Francis Ford Coppola film gave rise to one of the most notorious archetypical figures of the latter third of the 20th century. Who among us has not said, jokingly or otherwise, to an associate, "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse"? Who has not made reference to the infamous "horse's head" vignette?
The Godfather is so well-known, in fact, that many people forget that it is actually a film adaptation of a novel. THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo was a wildly successful novel long before the movie of the same name --- and its successors --- ever saw the light of day. Puzo was derided by some critics as a hack and his classic work as a second-class potboiler. While the book was awkward at some points and unwieldy in others, it cannot be denied that Puzo, over the course of several hundred pages, created a group of unforgettable characters and riveting situations, a modern-day morality tale that ushered in the modern rebirth of the anti-hero. Puzo never returned to the world of Don Vito and Don Michael Corleone; the films Godfather II and the unjustly maligned Godfather III marched on, continuing and concluding the brutal and tragic story of the Corleone family.
But there were gaps in the story with respect to events that occurred before, during, and after the novel and film versions of THE GODFATHER and its successor, Godfather II. Critically acclaimed author Mark Winegardner has filled at least some of the void with THE GODFATHER RETURNS. Its publication raises two immediate questions. Did we really need this book? No. Do we want it? Yes, most affirmatively. THE GODFATHER RETURNS covers the years 1955 through 1958, between The Godfather and Godfather II, and 1959 through 1962, after Godfather II and before Godfather III. It is obvious that this is not a work to be used as an introduction to the Corleone mythos. At minimum one needs to read the Puzo novel, as well as watch Godfather II, in order to fully comprehend and enjoy what is happening here.
Winegardner deserves an A for effort, and more, here. The focus is on Don Michael Corleone --- how could it be otherwise? --- as he attempts to cement his power in order to ostensibly convert all of his businesses to legitimate enterprises. In doing so, he makes an enemy of Nick Geraci, a Corleone street enforcer who Michael pragmatically but unwisely chooses to sacrifice as a stepping stone to his own greater power. Winegardner also devotes quite a bit of the book to Tom Hagen and Fredo Corleone, two important if secondary characters in Puzo's universe. Winegardner, among other things, reveals a sordid side to Fredo's life, as well as the reasons for Hagen's occasionally ambiguous status within the Corleone empire.
Furthermore, Winegardner delves into a bit of the Corleone history prior to THE GODFATHER novel, particularly with respect to Michael's childhood and his wartime experiences, his first meeting with Kay Adams --- who would become his wife --- and his occasionally uneasy bond with Tom Hagen. In the end, however, Michael remains a bit of an enigma, by turns duplicitous, ruthless and driven, the antithesis of all that he originally set out to be. Winegardner describes a telling moment when Michael, at the cusp of adolescence, confronts his father and, at least temporarily, turns his back on his heritage. It is the most pivotal and ironic moment in a tale full of them.
THE GODFATHER RETURNS ends in 1962, with Michael having possibly sewn the initial seeds of his own destruction. Given that Godfather III took place in 1979 and 1980, it appears that more will be heard from Winegardner, and the Corleones. And while the reading public may not need it, they will certainly want it. Recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011
The Godfather Returns