With the publication of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather in 1969, the long-lasting passion of the American public for the Mafia finally came out of the closet. In practice it had long been an accepted but minor part of American city life and business about which nobody got very excited, but in theory it represented organized crime, sin, and the man-eating shark, and therefore had to be publicly execrated. J. Edgar Hoover, with his habitual nose for the real sentiments of middle America, carefully avoided choosing it as a target, and indeed refused to admit its existence until its involvement in the heroin traffic made it, at least for a time, genuinely unpopular. Hoover’s “public enemies” usually challenged the values of business society, at least symbolically. The Mafia, so far from challenging the values of “Americanism,” embodied them.
What, after all, could be more American than the success stories of penniless immigrant boys clawing their way to wealth and respectability by private enterprise? What legitimate American business tycoon ever objected to being called “ruthless,” to being credited (like the good boxer) with the “killer instinct,” or to the principle that “nice guys finish last”? Mafiosi were as close-mouthed as US frontier marshals in Westerns, or as Calvin Coolidge. They were—another trait that facilitated empathy—by no means intellectually inclined. Their substitution of private violence for state authority was as American as apple pie.
What is more, The Godfather could be seen to represent not only some of the continuing principles of the American way of life, but the ancestral ideals it had somehow inexplicably lost on the way. In Don Corleone’s world bosses were respected and loved by their subordinates as surrogate fathers. Men were men and women were glad of it. Morality rules unchallenged, and crime, for the most part, was kept off the streets. Families stuck together under patriarchal control. Children obeyed fathers, and virtuous wives were not afraid of losing their status to mistresses, nor did they dream of ripping off their spouses for alimony. No wonder New York magazine exclaimed (according to the paperback edition’s blurb): “You’ll find it hard to stop dreaming about it.”
American readers and moviegoers could therefore enjoy The Godfather without bothering their heads about the extraordinary island the Corleones were supposed to have come from, just as the followers of the Kennedy saga (real or mythologized) do not really have to know anything about County Wexford. Both are quintessentially stories about the USA. But what can they make of Mr. Puzo’s new book The Sicilian, whose action takes place entirely in the Sicilian past, and which purports to be a barely fictionalized retelling of the real life-history of the bandit Salvatore Giuliano (1922–1950), a distinctly non-American figure? For commercial purposes his story is loosely linked here to the earlier installments of the Corleone epic.
The literature about Giuliano, to which Mr. Puzo’s book adds nothing of interest, is probably larger than that about …