BAY SHORE, N.Y. — BAY SHORE, N.Y. -- Even without guarantee of immunity, Mario Puzo admits he's a con man. What he knows about the Mafia comes from books. What he knows about the dagger, the pistol, the garrote is mostly that they can kill you. What he knows about criminal conspiracies is limited to the time he kited checks against his credit cards, which turned out OK because he got rich before the banks started prosecuting.
"I'm against crime," insists Puzo, 75, barefoot like an angel and sinking deep into a couch in his Long Island, N.Y., home. "I'm against criminals."
Honesty and virtue did not prevent Puzo from writing "The Godfather," a masterpiece of mob psychology. The 1969 blockbuster made millions and became the basis for three Francis Ford Coppola movies, which made more millions. Puzo told anyone who would listen he had no mob sources. The term "Godfather" as a synonym for Mafia don did not exist. What may be the most famous throw-away line in U.S. publishing history -- "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" -- does not come from a wiretap. It came from Puzo.
"The Godfather" taught Puzo that people will believe what they want to believe. He met a couple of "gentlemen" from the mob at a party -- one of whom, incidentally, was later found floating in a barrel, Puzo says -- and they were convinced the author had inside information. "C'mon," they said, "you know Frank Costello." It wasn't true, says Puzo. He knows nobody.
So whose fault is it that Puzo is heading for Fat City with another big Mafia book and that he still doesn't have any top-secret intelligence, that he hasn't been to mob summits, that he does not consort with hit men or huddle with "consiglieri," that he does not frequent mob restaurants, that the most he does to observe "omerta," the oath of silence, is to hedge a little about monthly conversations in the Hamptons with pals who include "Catch-22" writer Joseph Heller?
"Just guys hanging around," Puzo says.
For foisting another felony-grade fairy tale on the public, Puzo shows no remorse. Repentant? The man is not familiar with the word.
His seventh novel, "The Last Don," is about Domenico Clericuzio, an aging Mafia titan trying to transform his criminal empire into a legitimate operation so future generations don't have to sweat imprisonment or sudden extinction. It is a long and engaging book that gives the impression a curtain has been lifted on a world so secret that even the act of reading invites danger.
From the Don's Long Island compound to the gambling tables of the Xanadu resort in Las Vegas to the executive offices of Hollywood movie studios, Puzo's story says to the reader, "Scary, right?"
You betcha. Scary, but lotsa baloney.
When Clericuzio assassins plan a hit, they decide whether to conduct a "communion," meaning the body will disappear, or a "confirmation," meaning it will be found. Specifics like that -- Puzo must have gotten them from a detective or district attorney. "Nah," he says. "Made 'em up."
No wonder a Mafioso was quoted recently as saying the mob isn't what Puzo claims. Big news, says Puzo with a smile.
"I know it's nothing like that," he says. "I am writing about a myth."
With fables like these, Aesop would have died rich and tan in Malibu.
Random House is printing 350,000 copies of "The Last Don." For the privilege of doing a six-hour miniseries based on the Clericuzio saga that will air next year, CBS is paying $2.1 million -- outbidding everybody, including Coppola. Puzo is about to make another bundle -- precisely as he intended.
"I wrote every book I wrote for money," he says.
Forgive Puzo the bottom-line mentality. It took years of hardship and heartbreak before he hit the jackpot.
Puzo grew up poor in New York City's Hell's Kitchen and worked an assortment of odd jobs to make ends meet. Puzo produced two creditable "literary" novels, "The Dark Arena" and "The Fortunate Pilgrim," a sensitive rendering of Italian-American life, but neither sold. He and his wife, Erika, who died 18 years ago, had five kids and no cash. Classy writing wasn't feeding the family. "You get angry," he says.
Then came "The Godfather," followed quickly by riches and fame, and Puzo decided that he would write only books that brought big bucks.
There have been tough moments. Puzo suffered a heart attack (( 4 1/2 years ago and underwent quadruple bypass surgery. He takes medication for adult-onset diabetes. When he scuffs through the coral carpeting in his sunny upstairs domain (bedroom, study, sitting room), the author must take it slow and easy. "I hate old age," he says. "I can't play tennis. I can't run. All I can do is write."
Lucky for Puzo and his loyal fans.
"The Last Don" is being billed as a comeback novel for a writer who hadn't published since 1991 ("The Fourth K") and wondered if he could still knock 'em dead. Judging by early reviews, Puzo is the same old sawed-off shotgun. "No other popular writer mixes suds and satire with such disarming effect," said Time magazine, which, in a headline, called Puzo's latest "a novel you shouldn't refuse."
Puzo also has critics.
Detractors say he nourishes the unfortunate idea that the Mafia dominates Italian-American communities and, further, that Puzo has gone astray as a writer -- that he demeans Italians and himself.
"It's a kind of wasted talent," said Eugene Mirabelli, professor emeritus of English at the State University of New York at Albany and a novelist who has written four books about Italian-American life. "That's what his contribution to American culture is -- the promotion of a dreadful stereotype."
Faced with charges of betrayal and banality, Puzo seems perplexed. He's heard such things before, of course, but doesn't really understand. What is he supposed to do, pretend the Mafia doesn't exist? Suppress his creative instinct?
In the case of "The Last Don," Puzo set out to write a book about Hollywood, and it came out a book about the Mafia. He should throw it away?
Not on your life, so to speak.
"Where's a writer supposed to get his material?" says Puzo. "That's always baffled me. So, I'll turn them all into Irishmen."
Puzo has a beloved companion in Carol Gino, 54, a nurse who cared for Puzo's wife when Erika was dying of cancer and is now a writer herself.
Puzo has eight grandchildren and what seems like 800 photos of the kids on a shelf in front of a window.
He has plenty of books -- nothing in life is more important to him than reading, Puzo says -- and he has the monster-screen television and the collection of operatic CDs. He has friends and respect -- Marlon Brando called the other day to ask about playing in "The Last Don" if it didn't go to TV, which it did -- and though work is moving slowly at the moment, he has another novel in mind.
He's lost an inch of height, Puzo says, down to 5 feet, 5 1/2 inches, and a lot of weight, and he wears a hearing aid.
Still robust is his imagination, however, and equally intact is the devotion of readers convinced Puzo can take them where they haven't been before -- inside the Mafia. How would they react if they knew he hadn't been inside the Mafia himself?
"Maybe we shouldn't tell them," decides Mario Puzo.
Pub Date: 7/31/96