Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather and the movies based on it, which Puzo co-wrote with director Francis Ford Coppola, became a pop-culture juggernaut that introduced a staggering number of unforgettable characters. Few of the supporting players loom larger in the imagination than Luca Brasi, the Corleone family enforcer who, as played by former professional wrestler (and Colombo family associate) Lenny Montana, looked like an angry mountain. Luca is only onscreen for about five minutes, which is enough time for him to badly bungle the only job audiences get to see him do. (Sent to gather information about a rival of the Don’s who may be planning a gang war, he is garroted, which gives Clemenza the chance to explain the meaning of the “old Sicilian message” communicated by a dead fish wrapped in a man’s coat.) Had Coppola done less of a brilliant job of selling Luca’s reputation as one of the most fearsome members of the Corleone organization, by emphasizing people’s reactions to him and having them trade scary stories about him, audiences might have suspected that this gorilla had been overhyped. Instead, seeing the efficiency with which the Don’s enemies dispatched the unkillable Luca Brasi, audiences shuddered, and were left to fantasize about what Luca might have been like in his roaring prime.
Luca is one of the major players in The Family Corleone, the new Godfather prequel Ed Falco assembled from material left behind by Puzo, who died in 1999. The supposed appeal of a book like this is that it lets fans spend more time with favorite characters and get answers to some of the mysteries still surrounding them. Readers blessed, or cursed, with a grasp of basic storytelling may not be surprised to find that the mysteries were a lot more fun than the answers. Falco, the novelist, short-story writer, and creative-writing teacher hired to cobble together this chunk of product, has to shoulder the blame for the plodding pace and colorless language, and for some real missed opportunities, such as his failure to do anything with some promising but largely untapped characters. He gets to share blame with Puzo for Family Corleone—Puzo’s name is as big as Falco’s on the book jacket—but regardless, Luca is hardly a richer character as a borderline basket case with a personal history out of bad Italian opera.
It turns out that Luca’s legendary fearlessness was a side effect of chronic depression. When Luca was 12 years old, his father tried to murder his mother, who was pregnant by a neighbor, so Luca killed his dad to protect his mom, then killed the neighbor to avenge the insult to his father. By the time the book opens in 1933, Luca has come to hate himself so much that he’s running amok through New York’s underworld, not caring who he pisses off, because he’s secretly hoping to commit suicide by gangland retribution. At the same time, he hates his enemies so much that he doesn’t want to make it easy for them, so he fashions his own bulletproof vest. So even though people do sometimes shoot him, he just keeps getting back up, adding to his reputation as an exile from hell.
Luca finally gets so tired of waiting for someone to attempt a headshot that he overdoses on pills. The suicide attempt leaves him brain-damaged, slow of speech, and dim of affect. This is presumably meant to explain Luca’s behavior in the wedding scene at the beginning of the first Godfather movie, in which he spends all morning practicing a two-sentence speech to the Don, and never gets it quite right. This news will seem hilarious to Godfather trivia freaks, who know the scene in the movie was rewritten to accommodate the fact that Lenny Montana, who had never acted before, was so dumbstruck at being face-to-face with Marlon Brando that he could barely remember his own name, never mind his lines. (In the garroting scene, he gives a much more relaxed and assured reading of his other big line, which is “Arghhhh!!”)
The Family Corleone is supposed to lay the floorboards for the original Godfather by showing how, over the course of less than two years, Vito Corleone went from being an East Coast gangster to the East Coast gangster. There isn’t that much to it, beyond the Don waiting and watching while his rivals make mistakes. The book includes a number of scenes that seem intended to rhyme with fans’ memories of the original Godfather: an assassination attempt in an Italian restaurant, frequent jabbering about cannoli, and a big family wedding at the end. The failed rival, Don Mariposa, strongly resembles Don Tattaglia, the swinish “pimp” who declares war against the Corleones in The Godfather. He’s even backed by the same wily snake who went on to be the puppeteer behind the Tattaglia power grab, Don Barzini. In The Godfather, after the meeting where the Five Families make peace, Don Corleone tells his adopted son, Tom Hagen, that he now knows that it was always Barzini pulling the strings. This always seemed like evidence of the Don’s ability to look into men’s faces and read their minds, but now it just seems strange that it takes him so long to figure out what’s going on, since it all happened to him before.
The Family Corleone’s other major character is Don Corleone’s oldest son, Sonny, the first of the Don’s offspring to figure out that pop is something other than an especially successful, intimidating olive-oil salesman. His storyline seems meant to mirror Michael’s corruption in the film, but their arcs aren’t really comparable, because Sonny, the fun-loving hothead, never suggests—and, as conceived by Puzo, was never meant to suggest—the potential to rise to great heights as anything but a gangster. Falco may be hoping to achieve tragedy, but he doesn’t have a hero with the sensibility to support it, which leaves a gaping hole in the book. (Michael is still too young to have any role in the plot, but he does get to pipe up enough to show what an insufferable little boy he was.)
This book, commissioned by Puzo’s estate, was targeted in a lawsuit by Paramount Pictures, which owns the rights to the characters. Paramount expressed concern that Falco’s book might “tarnish” its intellectual property, which is rich coming from the company that had no such concerns about the Godfather videogame, or the terrible book sequels by Mark Winegardner, or for that matter, The Godfather, Part III. (The Puzo notes used for this book are screenplay material he whipped up for a different possible third Godfather movie, which is to say that there was never any point at which this project was a good idea.) Falco’s book is purely exploitative, but so was Puzo’s original novel. Puzo never tired of telling how, after writing a couple of books that earned him a reputation as a serious author and left him without two nickels to rub together, he cooked up the idea for a commercial potboiler about the Mafia, sold the idea via an outline based on a close study of the bad bestsellers of the day, and made his fortune.
He never got his serious reputation back; the most respected writing he did in the last 30 years of his life was his Godfather screenplays. (And the best of his instant-bestseller potboilers is his 1984 Godfather sequel The Sicilian, which links the fictional myth of the Corleones with the historical legend of the bandit-hero Salvatore Giuliano.) But however cynically Puzo conceived the Corleones, they got hold of him so he could never shake them off, just as the rest of the planet has never been able to shake them off. Puzo needed Coppola and his cast and crew to turn his tabloid fever dreams into art, but his worst writing still had an intense, sweaty, “Listen to me, I gotta tell you this!!” impact that Falco can’t replicate. That’s why Puzo’s story is an epic, while The Family Corleone is a doorstop. It isn’t Godfather fan fiction, or a parody, or a pastiche by someone who cares obsessively about the source material and just has to see what he can do with it himself. It’s pure work for hire, a book of respect.