Mario Puzo, 75, an old Italian owl who is diabetic and slow-footed but wily and still captivated by stories of evil people, is telling me about his life of crime.
"Oh, what a wicked world it is that drives a man to sin," Puzo writes in his new Mafia epic. So I ask whether he has ever been so driven.
"Oh, sure," he says, leaning forward in a wicker chair in his study. He is wearing white sweat pants and a pink polo shirt, and chewing on a cheap black cigar. "I took bribes."
In the 1950s, he worked as a clerk for the Army, which gave him the power to determine the fate of hundreds of draftees.
"Everybody was trying to get into the reserves and avoid active service," Puzo says. "One of the old savvy guys in the office, he wanted some slots to sell (to draftees). He said he'll give me $200 for one of my slots. I turned him down. But I was making $75 a week. I go home, my wife says we need money for shoes for the kids -- this sounds so corny. I haven't got the money. So I go back the next day. I say, 'Give me the money.' And that's how I became a bribe-taker.
"Now, I was an honorable guy. I fancied myself an artist. I was never a government bribe-taker. This was beyond the pale for me. And now all of a sudden I'm doing it. So I says, 'How come a guy like me has sunk so low?' Because I needed the money."
Puzo didn't have time to make much, though.
"My buddies got indicted and went to jail," he says. "I never got indicted. The reason is, I never asked for money. I never said, 'I'll sell you a slot.' I just took the money if they offered it."
Puzo smiles at this ancient piece of cleverness.
It's not a total surprise, then, that he writes so convincingly about the sins men commit in pursuit of a living (he fictionalized the bribery story for his 1978 novel "Fools Die"). Nor is it a coincidence that Puzo opened "The Godfather" with this quote from Balzac: "Behind every great fortune there is a crime."
At lunch, a little while later, Puzo is making me an offer I can't, well, you know.
There is such a thing as too much mozzarella, even if it's the milky, just-made kind served at Puzo's Long Island compound. Mozzarella induces lethargy, and I forget what I want to ask Puzo, which was: Can a man write a book so overwhelmingly successful that he comes to regret writing it, if only because people just want to talk about this particular book and not his other books, and because people in his presence involuntarily say such things as "Leave the gun, take the cannoli"?
But instead we talk about his heart problems, which are not insignificant, and the benefits of Prozac, and how, despite the heart and because of the Prozac, he has been able to write an entirely new Mafia saga that rivals "The Godfather" in scope and treachery and in laying bare all the animal urges -- betrayal, revenge, respect -- that Puzo grasps so well.
The new book, now Number 4 on The New York Times best-seller list, is called "The Last Don," the Don this time being Domenico Clericuzio. If Puzo seems even more unrealistically canny and unbreakable than Don Corleone, well, Puzo never said he was writing sociology.
I tell him an FBI agent once told me that Puzo didn't know anything about the Mafia.
"He's right," Puzo says, laughing. And it doesn't matter, of course. "The Last Don," which is about Hollywood as much as it is about the Mafia, is a return to the pure, mythic storytelling form that made "The Godfather" the best-selling novel ever. "The Mafia can learn a lot from Hollywood," Puzo says.
But will he still resonate? Is there an audience today for a refugee from the '70s, an old-style raconteur with an almost Rat Packish air about him (not too Rat Packish, of course, since Frank Sinatra is an enemy, from the time audiences understandably confused the crooner with "The Godfather's" mob-linked Johnny Fontane). Here is Puzo, still writing about a secret society that 25 years ago seemed exotic and deadly but today is, to be charitable, diminished in cultural significance and actual threat. Does Puzo still work?
Random House, which is hyping "The Last Don" as Puzo's "comeback" novel and is printing 350,000 copies in its first run, believes Puzo does. So does CBS, which is planning to turn the book into a mini-series, for which it paid $2.1 million, outbidding Francis Ford Coppola.
The advance notices have been enthusiastic, and Puzo seems pleased about the book's prospects, pleased enough, at least, to sit for an interview, his first in 18 years. Over the course of four hours in his sprawling house in Bay Shore, Long Island-haute Suffolk, but definitely not Hamptons, Puzo talks abut all the things Puzo should talk about: sin and corruption, the venality of man, the price and pleasure of being a best-selling author.
Puzo is relaxed and talkative, but that may be because in the room with us are his companion and protector, Carol Gino, to whom he refers, naturally, as his consigliere, and Jonathan Karp, his editor and would-be deputy consigliere. Two of his five grown children hover nearby -- the loyal children doting on the don, as it were.
"The Last Don" is both figuratively and literally a comeback, since Puzo nearly died in Las Vegas five years ago.
"I always spend New Year's Eve in Vegas because everybody's too busy gambling to make a fuss," he says. "So New Year's Eve she looks at my nails," he says, pointing to Ms. Gino.
"She says: 'You don't sound too good. You don't look so good.' "
Ms. Gino, a nurse, chimes in: "I leaned down on his chest. I could hear gurgling. I said, 'I think we should go to L.A.' "
She continues: "He says, 'We're going to Laughlin to gamble.' I said, 'Do you mind dying in Vegas?' And he said, 'I absolutely refuse to die in Vegas. How hokey would that be, Mario Puzo dying in Vegas?' Then I said, 'We got to get out of here.' "
Puzo underwent quadruple-bypass surgery upon arrival in Los Angeles, and found himself, like many other heart patients, seriously depressed.
"The heart operation really affected me to such a degree that Carol got me on Prozac so I could write again. I've been on it ever since. It helped me cheer up. It helped me to write again," he says.
"The Last Don" revisits the familiar turf of "The Godfather" and is driven, like "The Godfather," by outrage at the hypocrisy of "legitimate" society, this being the core of Puzo's paradoxical ethics.
"I happen to think that business people are far more ruthless, far more criminal, than the Mafia," Puzo says. "When you get a big company with big lawyers, what is that but having gunmen who can roll you right over?"
It has eluded many of his critics, particularly those in the Italian-American community, that Puzo is actually mocking the pretensions of American politicians and businessmen, whom he believes to be morally inferior to his novels' Sicilian killers.
"Italians have more family values than anybody," he says, not quite seriously. "The father takes care of the family, the mother takes care of the family. The children obey the parents. Nobody has family values more than the Italians, and that's why they're so good at being the Mafia. What is 'The Godfather' but a heartwarming story about a family with great, solid family values? The fact that they kill people once in a while -- I never show them killing good people, just bad people."
Nothing will be revealed here about the outcome of the new book, but suffice it to say that Don Clericuzio has particularly violent insight into the notion of family values. Suffice it to say, too, that Puzo has laced the book with more mean sex and stylized violence than you would think a 75-year-old with a heart condition would be capable of.
"He is the gentlest person I know," explains his friend and dining partner, Mel Brooks. "But he's got that Italian blood coursing through his veins that can come to a boil. I'm very careful when I'm eating with him not to say anything -- there's weapons there. I don't want him lunging at me with a knife."
"The Last Don" follows the Don's nephew, Pippi De Lena, who has brought peace to the underworld by his artful destruction of the rival Santadio family, but at a price De Lena must eventually pay. De Lena is the family bruglione, or baron, in Las Vegas, and he and his son, Cross, are the secret power behind the Xanadu hotel. Cross, falling in love with a "bankable star," Athena Aquitaine, tries to become a Hollywood player. But before he succeeds, he is compelled to commit a final act of violence in defense of his family.
Though "The Last Don" echoes "The Godfather" right from its opening scene -- a christening this time, at the Don's compound in Quogue -- it is in some ways more realistic than Puzo's first mob outing: The Clericuzios are grittier than the Corleones, for one thing. But "The Last Don" quickly trips into fantasy, if for no other reason than that the book is populated by men too soigne, too elegant for service in the American mob circa 1996. Don Clericuzio passes his days in his royal compound manipulating affairs in Las Vegas and Hollywood; his real-life counterpart is known for wandering the streets of lower Manhattan in a bathrobe, allegedly manipulating the affairs of bookmakers in the West Village.
"The guys who I write about are modeled on the Sicilian guys, who were much more clever than the American guys," Puzo says. "I know 'The Godfather' is a popular book amongst the Mafia guys, because it presents them the way they like to see themselves. They're Robin Hoods. It also makes them seem a lot smarter than they . . . "
"You say that one more time," Ms. Gino interjects, "and you're going to be at the bottom of somebody's ---."
"She's still afraid," he says.
"Keep saying they're not smart, it can do you no good."
I note that the current group of as-yet-unjailed mob leaders have better things to worry about than Puzo, especially since many readers -- and some mobsters -- apparently believe him to be a made man himself.
"I was really writing a fairy tale, and the amazing thing is, a lot of people think I'm in the Mafia. And I say to them, 'I'm a literary man. I've written reviews for the front page of the New York Times.' "
Puzo might be writing a fairy tale, but he seems to have a fairly grounded understanding of the Sicilian outlaw mentality.
This is what he writes about the Don: "Early on he had been told the famous maxim of American justice, that it was better that 100 guilty men go free than one innocent man was punished. Struck almost dumb by the beauty of the concept, he became an ardent patriot. America was his country. He would never leave America."
The parts of "The Last Don" that describe Mafia life are enthusiastically written, but it is in Hollywood where Puzo, the veteran screenwriter, finds the heart of modern gangsterism. Puzo's quasi-fictional Loddstone studios is run by a man, Eli Marrion, equal in cunning to the Don himself. And among Puzo's Hollywood characters is a writer who -- trumping "The Player" -- kills himself in order to get paid.
Here is movie executive Bobby Bantz, Marrion's No. 2, on the mugging of writers: "Bantz refused to give even the standard lip service to writers. It was true you needed a script to start, but Bantz believed that you lived and died by casting. Star power. Directors were important because they could steal you blind . . . But writers? All they had to do was make that initial tracing on blank white paper. You hired another dozen to work it over."
Puzo's entire understanding of Hollywood, he suggests to me, can be reduced to the following equation: "When they say a picture costs $70 million, it really costs $20 million and they steal the $50 million." He has always been awed by Hollywood roughnecks.
"When Charlie Bludhorn (the onetime head of Gulf and Western, which owned Paramount) was alive, Michael Eisner worked for him, Barry Diller worked for him," Puzo recalls. "And Charlie wanted to write a treatment with me for 'Godfather III.' He flew me down to the Dominican Republic -- we played tennis with Oscar de la Renta -- and me and Charlie wrote the treatment. He wasn't a bad helper. Now, I was a wise guy -- I had a day job, I was a novelist. I was just screwing around in the movie business, so I didn't care.
"So there's Michael Eisner, there's Barry Diller, there's Jeffrey Katzenberg hanging around shuffling papers like a clerk -- now he's the most powerful man in the world -- but he was the No. 3 man. I looked at Diller and Eisner, and Charlie was in the room with me. He owned everything, and he had just written this treatment with me.
"Being a wise guy, I turned to Diller and Eisner and said, 'You guys are going to find it hard to turn down this treatment.' They just looked at me. I looked into their eyes. They were killer eyes. There wasn't one twitch. And I said, 'S---, I'm dead.' I knew the picture was dead."
And it was -- for another dozen years.
So now Puzo is talking about "Godfather IV," if you can believe it. Although the auguries are not entirely promising -- "Part III," which Puzo wrote with Coppola, had, many people agree, a bit of a stale odor to it -- Puzo is pitchman-positive.
"What I got is a terrific script," he says. He's written a partial screenplay, so far without Coppola's help. "It simply goes back to the 1920s, and Sonny is the hero of the movie, rather than Michael."
The '20s? "Well, whatever it was. I can't keep track of that. One of the attractions of 'The Godfather' was Jimmy Caan playing Sonny, and so my thought was to show Michael being Christian, and Sonny making his bones and becoming his father's right-hand man and showing the rise of the Godfather. To me, it's a wonderful idea. 'Part IV' would really be 'Part I.' One day you could put the four together and make a great piece of work. It'd be a lot of money, too."
In fact, Puzo says, two years ago Paramount seemed ready to make it. "A couple of years ago, I get a call from Sherry Lansing, the chairman of Paramount -- I like her very much -- she says, 'We're going to do "Godfather IV." Call Francis, call so-and-so; are you on the team?' Certainly I'm on the team.
"An hour later, I get a call from Francis Coppola. 'We're going to do "Godfather IV." Talk to Sherry about your deal. Are you on the team?' I'm on the team. I hang up the phone. 'Godfather IV.' The part we cut out of 'III' will be 'IV.' It's already written -- another scam. I call up my lawyer, Bert Fields. I say, 'Bert, Sherry Lansing is going to be calling to make my deal.' That's the last I heard from them."
He starts laughing: "That's what they do in Hollywood."
A Paramount spokesman says only that the studio "has no plans at this time" to make another "Godfather" film.
In the meantime, though, Puzo is plotting out his next book, a novel spanning the entire history of the Mafia. "The Mafia started in the 1300s, and I'll end it in the year 2000, and then I'll be dead and they'll probably have enough of me and the Mafia. It would be very interesting."
I ask him whether he cares to return to the more literary pursuits of his earlier days, to writing another "small classic," as the New York Times long ago called his novel of Italian immigrant life, "The Fortunate Pilgrim."
"I am terribly, terribly grateful that I have stopped writing small classics," he says. "I've known novelists, guys who have written small classics and never made a penny, and they write these beautiful books. It's a mug's game. If you're a member of nobility, sure you can do that. If you're a guy who has a wife and children and you continue to write small classics, you're committing murder. You're murdering your family for the sake of your ego."
Joseph Heller, who with Brooks, Puzo and several of their shtick-loving cronies make up the long-running "Gourmet Club" of ethnic-food devotees, says: "He doesn't regret leaving that to write 'The Godfather.' If you ask any American writer, if we're being honest, we'd say we want to be literary and best-sellers, but I don't think that's possible in this country."
"The Fortunate Pilgrim," which was published in 1964, five years before "The Godfather," is a beautiful book filled with perfect sentences. The book could have put Puzo on track to be the Italian Malamud or Henry Roth.
"I'd hate to be Henry Roth," Puzo says. " 'Call It Sleep' is to my mind a great novel. But I wouldn't want to have lived his life. It was a life of continuous defeat and rejection. And when he started writing again, he didn't sell. Life is like a contest -- I know this is very crass -- but you want to achieve some sort of winning."
"To me," he says, "to write small classics and starve to death is a defeat. You get a tremendous feeling of resentment. I got terrific reviews on 'The Fortunate Pilgrim,' but I couldn't make any money. I was so outraged, I went around saying, 'Screw everybody, I'm going to write a best seller.' And everybody said you're full of s---, so I went out and wrote 'The Godfather.' I wrote that in a rage of being not accepted."
But still, I ask him, if there's one book of yours you want people to read, which would it be?
" 'The Fortunate Pilgrim,' I think," Puzo says.
Karp, his editor, prompts him: "If you had one book you thought would satisfy readers . . ."
"Oh, 'The Godfather,' " he says. "And 'The Last Don.' That's what I'm supposed to say."
Jeffrey Goldberg wrote this story for New York magazine. It was distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.