Mario Puzo died twenty years ago this summer. As a novelist, he remains fixed in the public’s mind for one paramount reason: The Godfather.
Michael Corleone’s tormented transformation. Sonny’s temper. Fredo’s fecklessness. The horse’s head scene and the demise of Moe Greene amid a ferociously capitalist America in the 1940s and 1950s — all that first appeared on the densely textured pages of Puzo’s 1969 novel.
Along with a surfeit of unforgettable remarks (“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”).
Now, twenty years after his own demise in July 1999, it’s clear that Puzo had a touch of the clairvoyant about him. In his novelist’s imagination, there is much about America in the Trump era that Puzo anticipated.
But it has little to do with The Godfather. A major mistake President Trump’s critics and supporters make is to link anything about Don Corleone or other “Godfather” elements to this current administration. All their sins (mortal and venal) aside, the Corleones had a fundamental honor and integrity absent in Trump’s realm.
Several months ago, political operative Roger Stone was in the news for his remarks about how a scene in The Godfather ~ Part II should be a blueprint for negotiations of power. But Roger Stone is a gadfly who confused his dandy’s wardrobe with keys to the kingdom.
Earlier this month, CNN host Chris Cuomo advertised his distress by freaking out over being compared to “Fredo” (the weakest of Don Vito Corleone’s three sons). But all he did was embarrass his father’s ghost.
Mario Puzo’s clairvoyance is manifest not in The Godfather, his most famous novel (it was, in fact, the best-selling novel in publishing history circa 1969-1971, long before the movie premiered in 1972), but in his least famous novel The Fourth K.
Published in January 1991, on the eve of the First Gulf War (Operation Desert Shield), The Fourth K is the only narrative Puzo ever set in Washington, D. C.
As the title hints, there is a Kennedy connection. The main protagonist is Francis Xavier Kennedy, distant cousin of John, Robert, and Ted. In an unspecified time, decades after the murders of JFK and RFK, The Fourth K offers us President Francis Xavier Kennedy. A byzantine plot involving international terrorism, hijacking, an Easter Sunday assassination of the Pope, and killing the president’s daughter (it’s an act of vengeance for the president’s refusal to yield to blackmail) detonates in the pages of The Fourth K, as fictional terrorists wage war against America.
For good measure, Puzo adds a subplot about homegrown political zealots using a “dirty bomb” to decimate New York City in an anti-nuclear protest – the Weather Underground updated on steroids, so to speak.
Given its narrative content, it’s startling that in 1991 The Fourth K did not hit it big. Even Hollywood passed on it. But by then, Mario Puzo was branded as “the Mafia writer.” Although he called The Fourth K his “most ambitious book,” readers by and large let it slip away.
Now more than ever, The Fourth K is timely. Yet not for reasons that have anything to do with the Kennedy mystique or perennial tensions in the Middle East.
With a crystal ball on his writer’s desk, what Puzo saw coming was how the scabrous confluence of money, evil amorality, hubris, and wicked self-interest would subsume the nation’s capital and threaten our Republic.
Some passages from The Fourth K could have been written recently. To avoid spoilers, here’s a judiciously edited medley.
One character says: “With a good education . . . any burglar, stickup man, any mugger, will know enough to steal without hurting anyone. They’ll know how to steal like the people on Wall Street, learn how to evade their taxes like respectable people in our society. We may create more white-collar crime, but at least nobody will get hurt.”
Another character says: “But look at Lincoln, he actually suspended habeas corpus and civil liberties during the Civil War . . . . Look at the personal powers of the President. He has the power to absolutely pardon any crime. That is the power of a king. Do you know what can be done with such power? What allegiance that can create? He has almost infinite powers if there is not a strong Congress to check him.”
And the character of Vice President Helen Du Pray, who figures in The Fourth K, anticipated the emergence of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. Puzo’s wrote this novel in the late 1980s, his clairvoyance extending to gender roles. The novel’s omniscient narrator tells us:
“Vice President Helen Du Pray . . . the first woman Vice President of the United States, she was fifty-five years of age and by any standard an extraordinarily intelligent woman. She had been a partner in a powerful law firm, then a congresswoman, then a senator and all the time a devoted and caring mother. She had managed her life impeccably only to wind up as another kind of housewife, namely, the Vice President of the United States. As Vice President she had to tidy up after her political ‘husband,’ the President, and perform his menial tasks.”
Less encumbered is the feral, draconian, archetypal insider Louis Inch (whose name bespeaks Puzo’s sly wit). The narrator in The Fourth K sums up for us:
“Inch was one of the richest men in America. His father had been the usual hard-nosed big-city landlord, failing to maintain heat in apartment buildings, skimping on services, forcing out tenants in order to build more expensive apartments. Bribery . . . was a skill Louis Inch learned at his father’s knee. Later, armed with a university degree in business management and law, he bribed . . .
“Louis Inch had joined the Socrates Club [and] the Socrates Club turned out to be better than Inch expected. He became friendly with the hundred or so men who controlled the country’s economic apparatus and political machinery. It was in the Socrates Club that Louis Inch became a member of the Money Guild that could buy the entire congressional delegation of a state in one deal. Louis Inch dreamed the impossible dream.”
Elsewhere, an embarrassed young man is schooled by his patriarchal elders: “That smile and wink gave David another message. These two men were standing by him as males. A lone powerful female had shamed one of their fellow males and they were punishing her. They had just administered a masterful blow to her ego, to keep her in her place.”
That reads like a summary of last September’s Kavanaugh hearings.
Mario Puzo made us an offer we can’t refuse with The Godfather. But it’s in The Fourth Kthat he forecast the ethos of our epoch, and imparted a prophetic narrative warning.
M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in 2017. His new book Mario Puzo ~ An American Writer’s Quest, the first-ever biography of Mario Puzo, was published by Heliotrope Books [heliotropebooks.com] on March 8, 2019 – the 50th anniversary of The Godfather.)