Mario Puzo doesn't make grandiose claims about the accuracy of his Mafia books and movies, but that hasn't prevented the "Godfather" cycle from being used as a de facto handbook for wise guys and would-bes.
But what about "The Last Don," Puzo's new tale of mob venality? New York magazine asked three Mafia savants to sit in judgment: Linda Schiro-Scarpa, who is working on a book with New York contributing editor John Connolly about her 32 years as the common-law wife of one of the most feared mafiosi in the country, Columbo crime family capo Gregory Scarpa; criminal-defense attorney Louis Diamond, who over the past 20 years has successfully defended a number of Mafia clients; and a person we'll call only O.C. "A man of respect," he comes from a true New York Mafia dynasty and understandably prefers the shadows to the limelight. Connolly and the three reviewers discussed "The Last Don" over Barolo and pasta at a small restaurant somewhere in Brooklyn.
Connolly: What did you think of the book?
O.C: I enjoyed it, but I actually thought it was more fantasy than reality. I'd like to meet a guy like Don Clericuzio -- a guy that had connections in Italy, Las Vegas, East Hampton, here, there, that knew everybody in the world. I'd like to marry his daughter.
Ms. Schiro-Scarpa: The man clearly got a little overextended.
Diamond: It's like a poor rewrite of "The Godfather." There's no details in this book. One thing that you enjoyed about "The Godfather," and how you could put the book down and savor each chapter, was that every time you had a character, you learned something about that person, his thought process, his philosophy, his limitations, and where he came from. Puzo had a beautiful knowledge of ethnic backgrounds. None of that is in this book.
Connolly: Did the book accurately portray the Mafia as it is today?
O.C.: It really doesn't. It showed the deceit and treachery, but it made everything seem like life was just really happy. Everybody in the book was happily engaged. Nobody got hurt. Nobody says, "Oh, if you get arrested, don't worry. They'll get you the high-priced lawyer, they'll get you out on bail, they'll bribe the witness, they'll bribe the juror." Yeah, they've got an allegation against John Gotti that he got to the jurors. Tell me how many other places and times that's ever happened?
Diamond: So we've lived now through 30 years of people who think it's fine that their Sonny is buried at the age of 24, or doing 25 years in prison at the age of 26 because he's a stand-up guy or knock-around guy, because he followed the rules of "The Godfather," right? And I've buried three generations of people I've represented, and I've got people I've represented in jail with no hope of ever getting out who actually believe that line of crap, and raise their children that way. It's bad enough that we ruined two generations of people already with his last book. At least what he was quoting there was founded in fact.
Ms. Schiro-Scarpa: The actual old-timers, the good fellas, are gone. Now you have these wanna-bes. Aside from selling drugs, they're on them themselves. And where do they go? They go nowhere. They end up either dead in the street or in jail.
Connolly: How about the dialogue?
Diamond: In "The Godfather," there were direct quotes from what was really going on. Now I think he believes that he can make up expressions that will become real, like life imitating art, because some jerk, probably, when this book comes out, is going to start using that expression. In the book, you never heard one guy in Hollywood call (the Don's nephew) a "guinea" behind his back. Now, you know the first thing they do when they leave the room is the guys in the room say, "That guinea b---."
Connolly: What else did Puzo get wrong?
Diamond: If you sit there and you listen to the characters in the book, they're all respectful. It never worked that way. When you sat at meetings, everybody was calling each other obscenities, and they yelled at each other. They told the boss, "What are you, crazy?" There was never this dignified thing. They're making it seem something that it's not. You cannot glorify these people, because the very, very best of them that I've ever known was nothing but scum.
Like I say, you can't waste two more generations of people who want to emulate these characters. The only thing he did say was the American-born are weak, and they don't have the omer, which is true.
But they're weak as well because they're marginal idiots. They don't finish school. Their main ambition by the time they hit 13 is, if they've read "The Godfather" as mandatory reading in the house, they will never finish school, and hang out in the social club fetching coffee and trying to get involved in stickups.
Second of all, there's nobody around long enough for them to emulate, because they're all doing time -- because they're all idiots anyway.