By Mark Winegardner
Published November 2005
Date Reviewed: December 1, 2005
Originally reviewed in : The Daily Cardinal
It’s impossible to overexaggerate the effect “The Godfather” has had on popular culture. Mario Puzo’s tale of Vito Corleone and his son Michael perfectly balanced the Mafia’s violence with the virtues of family, inspired two Oscar-winning films and made phrases such as “An offer he can’t refuse” part of the American dictionary.
When Puzo’s estate announced they were contracting Mark Winegardner to write a sequel, fans were understandably nervous. The original was considered so innovative that any sequel could, by comparison be as bad as the infamous “Godfather III”. Those fears prove only half true: while Winegardner’s “The Godfather Returns” does not equal its predecessor’s greatness, it is a well-written and suspenseful tale of mob intrigue.
The book fills in the gaps between the three movies, following Michael’s efforts to bring the Corleone family into the legitimate businesses of Las Vegas. To do so, he needs to maneuver his enemies into destroying themselves, but creates a more dangerous enemy in Nick Geraci, an ambitious Corleone capo with reasons to resent Michael. The unspoken battle between the two triggers a series of events that will reach all the way to Cuba and the presidential office.
Winegardner displays these events seamlessly, evolving each character with an attention to detail and dialogue strikingly similar to Puzo’s. Geraci’s introduction in the first chapter – culminating with the never before seen execution of the traitor Tessio – shows that a dangerous new character equaling Michael’s strength is on the rise. Well-known characters are given room to expand as well: Michael’s adopted brother and consigliere Tom Hagen moves into a Senate career, while the weak-willed Fredo Corleone has his treason in “Godfather II” fully explained by Geraci’s manipulations.
The book revolves around Michael however, and every inch of his ruthless brilliance is pushed to the forefront. None of his plans are made without harming at least three of his enemies, and any threats to his power – such as Geraci being related to the Cleveland boss – are handled with remarkable foresight. Michael’s early childhood and war career are examined for the first time, his conflicts with Vito are dramatic, chronicling his futile attempt to escape the family business.
The problem in the book is that between Michael’s professional and personal families, there are so many subplots that before the halfway point it all meshes together. Winegardner has a challenge keeping all the marriages and alliances straight, making a cast of characters at the beginning of the book invaluable. A plot where Michael’s niece Francesca deals with a cheating husband isn’t developed fully, while Chicago don Louie Russo is pushed off to the side despite being mentioned as the biggest professional threat to Michael.
Part of the excess comes from Winegardner’s attempt to weave the Corleone family into American history by having them associate with mob-connected figures from the fifties. Caricatures of the Kennedys and Frank Sinatra manifest themselves as ex-bootlegger Mickey Shea and Vegas singer Johnny Fontane. Their insertion seems awkward when placed against the likes of Michael and Geraci.
Despite these missteps however, the sheer mythos of the Godfather saga manages to permeate the novel and instill it with the story’s famous tension. In the book’s most dynamic chapter, at an induction ceremony for new members of the Family, Michael walks down the line expressing the principles that have governed the Corleone family since its inception: loyalty, family, and honor. As Michael inherited the ideals from his father, Winegardner inherits them from Puzo to create a surprisingly impressive addition to the Godfather saga.