Most schinck fiction in the last decade or so has been voycuristic—glimpses in to Hollywood, rock musicians, the jet set, corrupt politicians, replete with drugs, kinky sex, casual violence, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, of which more copies than the Bible have been in print during the last five years, lets us peep at the Mafia, as good a subject as any for this kind of thing. Most people who read it agreed that while yes, it was awful, it made a decent deal with its reader because it offered glimpses of Mafia life that were convincing and maybe even authentic. At the outset of Fools Die one seems to be in for much of the same. The scene is Las Vegas, a world any voyeur might want to have a look at.
Calmly and without emotion Jordan hit twenty-four-straight passes. By the eighth pass the railing around the baccarat table was crowded and every gambler at the table was betting Bank, riding with luck. By the tenth pass the croupier in the money slot reached down and pulled out the special five-hundred-dollar chips. They were a beautiful creamy white threaded with gold.
Cully was pressed against the rail, watching. Diane standing with him. Jordan gave them a little wave. For the first time he was excited. Down at the other end of the table a South American gambler shouted, “Maostro,” as Jordan hit his thirteenth pass. And then the table became strangely silent as Jordan pressed on.
It is scenario writing, leaving Puzo or someone else little to do when turning Fools Die into a screenplay.
It is good, too, to have the man who hits the twenty-four straight passes win over $400,000 in one night and then go upstairs and shoot himself—that is what one wants in schlock fiction. Intermittently thereafter Puzo comes back to Vegas and, tells us about how a big gambling hotel is run, how seams are discovered, how you can identify the true from the phony hustlers:
And Gronevelt knew that the true hustler had to have his spark of humanity, his genuine feeling for his fellowman, even his pity of his fellowman. The true genius of a hustler was to love his mark sincerely. The true hustler had to be generous, compassionately helpful and a good friend.
Hemingway and the bulls all over again, in bloated and repetitive prose. And as we should expect, the sex that goes with it is wholly without sensuality.
As they went on, Cully rose from the bed and sat in one of the chaire. The two women were becoming more and more passionate. He watched their bodies flow around and up and down each other until there was a final climaxing of violent thrashing and the two women lay in each other’s arms quiet and still.
The late show for Cully, a true hustler.
But Puzo doesn’t stick with Vegas and hustling: indeed, he doesn’t stick with anything very long. There are perhaps certain advantages in this looseness or aimlessness for the writer of schlock; he can throw in gaudy effects without having to do more than sketch a backdrop, snap a few pictures, and move on: there are some bits to do with a Norman Mailerish writer, a stint in Hollywood for the minor novelist hero so we can learn all over again how awful that is, a quick trip to Japan to hijack a million dollars worth of yen to Hong Kong, a hustler from Tennessee who wants to get a young gospel singer castrated so his profitable voice will never change, etc. If I can spot a novelist who seems like Mailer, an actor who seems like Brando, a producer-director like Coppola, a movie critic like Kael, presumably other readers will spot still others.
All this should help to identify the kind of book Fools Die is, the reason it seems a publishing event rather than a novel. But to identify it as such is also somewhat misleading, since Fools Die has serious intentions. One senses this first when, after the novel leaves Las Vegas, one realizes there is not going to be any plot. One then sees that the characters aren’t so much stick figures as hopelessly unrealized “real” people that Puzo would like to make clear for us, but can’t because he hasn’t skill enough. After the Vegas episode comes a long section about the hero, John Merlyn, who thinks he’s a magician, but he’s really just a guy, a writer, except we never learn what he writes about. He’s a civilian employee for the Army Reserve, a devoted father and husband, and also a vacuum into which long chapters disappear. Even when he goes to work for the Mailerish novelist (who also runs America’s leading literary review) and then to Hollywood after his second novel becomes a best seller, Merlyn is continually grim, no fun to have around. One begins to suspect that this is something quite unexpected in schlock—an autobiographical novel.
I don’t know whether anything that happens to John Merlyn actually happened to Marlo Puzo, but that hardly matters. What gives the book its menly shapelessness is, clearly, a serious impulse—otherwise the book would have been more shapely, the characters more clearly drawn, the dull point more pointed. For instance, every hundred pages or so we meet Merlyn’s brother Artie, his only family since both were orphaned very young. Artie is a truly virtuous guy, faithful to his wife, works honestly for the dishonest FDA. At one point he finds his mother, at another he is eight and the six-year-old Merlyn is envious of Artie’s beauty and goodness; when he dies Merlyn intones something about his magic beginning to fade. If Artie disappeared from the book it would make absolutely no difference. And if Puzo were writing ordinary junk I doubt that Artie would be in it at all.
Or there is Diane, a shill at the baccarat table who is present throughout the opening episode, “friends” with the twenty-four-pass suicide, Merlyn, and the true hustler. When she disappears no one even asks where she went. Or we learn that Merlyn takes bribes from people trying to avoid two-year stints in the army by joining the reserve, which requires only six months of active duty. It is low-level graft, uninteresting in itself, showing no change in the character of the rigidly moral Merlyn—he just becomes rigidly immoral, and talks tougher. When Merlyn is caught his hustler friend fixes a witness so Merlyn can resign his job and go off to be a writer.
In all this there is no reason for what is happening, which is why many of the characters and events strike the reader as present in the novel because they may have happened to Puzo in some way. He can’t write about them well because he hasn’t the talent, but they show he is not just attempting a place of slick construction, though it is only the ineptness and pointlessness that identify Puzo’s seriousness. The Hollywood stretches are so crudely done as to be ludicrous, yet they have a curious urgency. Merlyn is involved in making a screenplay for a low-budget movie produced by a company that mostly hires lawyers to swindle directors, actors, and writers who make anything that isn’t junk or who come in a penny over budget. For such a movie ten days is all that would be needed to write the script. yet Merlyn makes half a dozen trips back and forth from New York to LA for a year just to do this. It is as though Puzo didn’t want to write directly or openly about making The Godfather. yet couldn’t break loose enough from what happened to him to get the facts to square. (Apparently his publisher did not bother to point out such anomalies to Puzo, who also refers to Arthurian stories deriving from “the original Malory” and imagines grizzly bears in Oregon forests.)
Merlyn must keep going back to Hollywood not to write his script but to pursue his affair with Janelle, after ten years of unremitting fidelity to a wife who is pushed so far into the background of the novel one is never sure she is still alive. Nor is “alive” exactly how one would describe Janelle either, since Puzo describes her this way;
She had great sharp-planed bones in her face with lovely white skin over those bones, you couldn’t notice the skin owed something to makeup. She had vulnerable brown eyes that could be delighted as a child’s and tragic as a Dumas heroine. If this sounds like a lover’s description out of Dumas, that’s OK.
Since Janelle is an actress, she has had a rough past, including the time she fought with her conscience before agreeing to spend an evening with a producer that turns into an evening with the producer’s wife;
“I didn’t know I was going to fuck a woman. It took me eight hours to decide to fuck a man, and now I find out I had to fuck a woman. I wasn’t ready for that.”
I said I wasn’t ready for that either.
She said, “I really didn’t know what to do. I sat down and Mrs. Wartberg served some sandwiches and tea and then she pushed her breasts out of her gown and said, ‘Do you like these, my dear?”
But Puzo takes Janelle seriously, perhaps more so than any other character in the book. Though she serves mechanically to make some of the gaudier bits of sex possible—she saves the Tennessee gospel singer from castration by reducing him, she flees from Mrs. Wartberg, but then turns out to be bisexual herself, she brings out Merlyn’s piggishness by going to bed with the Mailerish novelist—Puzo and Merlyn morosely persist in returning to her because there is something about her they cannot fathom. She is called a feminist, except this seems to be Puzo’s word for hisexual, or a woman who says women should be able to screw as casually as men, She is intelligent, happy, sad, furious, violent, a good buddy, indeed says, “I’m a good person,” yet she is also a betrayer, a Southern belle. For two hundred pages Puzo keeps trying, and failing, to get her into focus. A merely cynical writer of schlock either would not have done this or would have done it better.
As I stumbled my way through Fools Die I kept asking myself who could possibly enjoy reading such gloomy trash. Of course it will be a hit; because of The Godfather, hut then The Silmartilion was at the head of the best-seller list and no one could finish it. Does Puzo himself think Fools Die is a good novel? Unlikely though that may seem, it is possible. Producing a publishing event, he also wants to write a novel; so he has grafted inarticulate bits of experience that sound autobiographical onto his voyeuristic effects. He even tells parts of the book in the first and parts in the third person so as to distinguish the schlock from the serious writing, though the divisions aren’t quite that neat.
Merlyn himself suggests how all this may have happened. All the fools in the book die, but Merlyn goes on living, guilty for how little he cares about life. and for how little he can connect with it. It’s easy to see what his wife means when she says she is happier when he is away much of time. is Merlyn a version of Mario Puzo, a morose man who became hugely successful with a best seller and who longs to join the human family by writing a real novel?
Ashes, Ashes, Ashes. I wept as I had never wept for my lost father or my lost mother, for lost loves and all other defeats. And so at least I had that much decency, to feel anguish at his death.
That is bad writing, but not of the usual trashy kind; Merlyn, and perhaps Puzo too, really wants to say how unhappy he is. But he can’t, except in language as crude as this, so Puzo ends up with a real monster of a book to show he thus wanted and thus tried.
October 26, 1978