Out of curiosity from time to time I check to see what the internet gives coinage to when it comes to the term Great American Novel. Though the list rarely changes, full of classics like Lolita, The Whom The Bell Tolls, or literally anything written by Mark Twain. These are the type of novels that establish cultural moments in American history, that define media often changing the scope from things like shows or movies. I recently read one of my good friend’s favorite novels, an incredible tale of crime and family. A book that, when published in 1969 changed Americana Ethos from the wild west to the urban world like the Bronx. A book, much to my surprise as I looked from wiki to blogs of Great American Novels seemed to be missing.
Which is truly bizarre to me.
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather struck like hot iron in an America that was primed for disorder. A country that’s history was obedience, where the good guys were cops, the military was something of pride, and no matter what the circumstance anyone could pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make a legal and ethical living. By the late sixties, thousands of Americans were coming to terms with what utter bullshit that notion is. So when this story came out about one (fictional) of the five crime families of New York. A story that centered on organized crime but through the lens of family, friendship, and mutual respect. A glimpse into a world that exists within its own realm, playing by its own rules, enforcing its own laws.
Following the Corleone family, a group of proud Sicilian immigrants who run labor and gambling throughout New York the reader is taken on an epic of what it means to be family as the book explores the relationships between multiple characters centered around Don Corleone, the head of the family. Cold, calculated, ruthless, but near saint-like, we see the highs and lows of this grocery worker turned mafia boss alongside the intimate workings of his family, three sons, and daughter. Now I could sit here and praise this novel, say how it is one of my favorites, and sing its praises but that has been said and done. The Godfather is a staple point in the American cultural timeline wiki’s list be damned so instead I want to talk about its impact.
To be blunt I loved this book but not in the way some may think. I dislike crime novels or stories in general for that matter. I’ve never cared about the Yakuza games, I’ve never seen the Sparano’s (and have no plains too), and generally have never had any interest in noir. The more I think about it the only real crime fiction I’ve ever cared for is the cop propaganda that is Law And Order but I’m a sucker for court drama. Despite such feelings, it would be impossible to miss the influence of this book. What Puzo was able to do with what many consider to be a masterpiece was influence a nation to look at the world through this Robin Hood/ vigilante type of society. A social circle that helps one another out but in the same breath makes those who wronged them vanish.
What followed was a sensation-filled boom of gangster media. Hollywood ran with it, putting out a three-part film that even to this day is considered one of the finest pieces of cinema ever created. HBO would be crowned the king of Television with their award-winning Soprano. Martin Scorsese would be forever cemented in Hollywood fame with what is considered one of the top 100 movies of all time Goodfellas (though I’m not big into crime it is one of my all-time favorite movies) It would be audacious, even ridiculous for me to say that Puzo’s Godfather was the direct bridge that leads to the success (and even romanticizing) of the American gangster. I cannot say Goodfellas would have not existed, hell the movie is based on a completely different non-fiction novel (Wiseguy) nor am I in a position or well versed enough in American culture to say if this boom would have happened eventually. But what I can say is this.
In 1969 The Godfather would remain on the NYT bestseller list for 67 weeks. In the first two years, it would sell nine million copies. In 1972 it would get the silver screen treatment directed by Francis Ford Coppola and co-written by Puzo. The film would go on to win three Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, and a Grammy and in a rare event, its squeal would go on to have more success. It would become the undoubtedly best gangster movie in history, a major hallmark of Hollywood culture. With this in mind, I can say with some confidence that without this novel a lot of modern perceptions of American storytelling would be vastly different. I’m not entirely sure we would have ever seen the script flipped from the cops always being the good guys. For the first time, the masses saw through the police fetish that had become ingrained within America and they never looked back.
If you have never read The Godfather I will say a couple of things. First and foremost it’s incredible, a truly wondrous work that grabbed me and never let go. However, I will say this. One of the biggest detractors for me personally when it came to the novel was just how erotic it got. There is a lot of alcohol abuse and general misogyny, the way people are treated due to their gender or race by the families makes sense in context but it doesn’t make it any more pleasant to read. But even with that notion, I found myself quite awe-struck by the book, both in the story and in impact.
This was a little tricker than I expected when I set out to write it, mostly due to my own shortcomings when it comes to both crime and the broad American culture. Either way, I hope this short essay somewhat found its mark in expressing what I was trying to say but for now I will leave it at that. Thanks for the read!