THE LAST DON
By Mario Puzo
Random House, $25.95
Reviewed by DAVID WALTON
"Life is like a box of hand grenades," one of Mario Puzo's characters in The Last Don quotes his mother telling him, "you never know what will blow you to kingdom come."
Even if this were not Puzo's first Mafia novel since The Godfather, a Book of the Month Club Main Selection and a simultaneous release in audiobook, even if Random House weren't printing 400,000 copies, and hadn't already sold rights in England, France, Italy, Sweden, China, and eight other countries, and even if it weren't packed with action, glamour, sex, treachery, and high crimes and misdemeanors too numerous to recount, The Last Don would still be this summer's big book. Puzo is 76 now, and you have to root for a guy who can assemble a cast this huge, cover this much territory _ the Mafia, Hollywood, Las Vegas _ and keep the action rolling for nearly 500 pages.
The Last Don isn't quite in a league with The Godfather, and, incidentally, isn't in any way related to any of that book's characters. But it's an energetic, absorbing, and very witty novel, and nobody's going to come away disappointed.
Don Domenico Clericuzio, the most powerful, most respected of the Mafia lords, has decided to pull his family out of crime entirely and concentrate in legitimate enterprises. The time is the early '60s, "one year after the Great War against the Santadio," an event referred to but not explained until the end of the novel. The occasion, the christening of Don Clericuzio's grandson and grand-nephew, Dante Clericuzio and Croccifixio De Lena. In the crib, the two babies fight over a bottle _ a portent of the novel's central conflict.
"What the Don could not foresee," Puzo tells us, lest the point be missed, "were the seeds of evil in as yet unformed human minds."
Puzo, like all great popular novelists, is a master of underscoring, foreshadowing, contrasting. Few American writers can set up a scene like Mario Puzo can, and The Last Don is filled, maybe overfilled, with characters, plots, and dramatic encounters.
Also, there are a lot of names to keep track of _ Croccifixio and Dante being among the less distinctive.
"Eli Marrion, Bobby Bantz, Skippy Deere, and Melo Stuart assembled in emergency session in Marrion's home," reads the opening of one chapter, "Andrew Pollard had reported to Bantz Cross De Lena's secret scheme to get Athena back to work."
Paradoxically, the gimcrack names, the telegraphing of plot points, the cranked up story line (the film star Athena Aquitane, fearing her ex-husband will throw acid in her face, has quit work on the grand epic film Messalina, at a potential loss of $50-million) _ these are the very features that work for this novel. Puzo takes it all seriously enough, but it's clear he's having great fun with this story.
"Molly Flanders loved California juries," he writes of a feared Hollywood criminal and entertainment lawyer (the two are shown to be nearly synonymous): "Intelligent, well-educated enough to understand the nuances of psychiatric trauma, exposed to the higher culture of theater, film, music, literature, they pulsed with empathy."
This is a novel that has room for a Mark Fuhrman cop, a scheme to fix the Super Bowl, and a full tally of the ways a screenwriter gets screwed in Hollywood _ clearly a subject near to Puzo's heart.
Even while describing the fate of the star-crossed lovers whose role in the Santadio War is the novel's most tragic thread, Puzo can't resist:
"She said they were like Romeo and Juliet," the old Don complains. "Who were Romeo and Juliet? Who in Christ's name were these people? Certainly not Italians."
What The Last Don lacks in comparison to The Godfather is mythic shapeliness. The Godfather is basically a fairy tale: "The king has three sons; which is the rightful successor?"
The Last Don, its story hinging on the secret of the Santadio War, is a serial, a miniseries _ which, in fact, it soon will be, for six hours on CBS.
The Last Don is best read without making comparisons; taken in its own right, it's funny, lively, highlighted by Mario Puzo's long acquaintance with Hollywood, Las Vegas, and Mafia lore.
David Walton is a writer who lives in Pittsburgh.