“Pitiless Cruelty: Cynicism, Capitalism, and Gambling in the Writing of Mario Puzo”

By David G. Schwartz

ABSTRACT

The Godfather made him a wealthy man, but Mario Puzo’s long years as a struggling writer and childhood in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen conditioned him to treat money—and those who made a great deal of it—with suspicion. This paper explores how Puzo’s cynical views of capitalism were buttressed by his experiences as a self-described “mildly degenerate” gambling, and how they are expressed in both his fiction and non-fiction.

Keywords: Mario Puzo, gambling, the Mafia, cynicism, The Godfather

Thanks to its bestseller status and movie adaptations, Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather created the modern Mafia drama, a genre that has enjoyed immense popularity through The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (1972, 1974), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Sopranos (1999-2007), and The Irishman (2019). Although his success with The Godfather pigeonholed Puzo as a Mafia writer, he started his career with serious literary aspirations and only wrote the career-making tale of the Corleone family because he was desperate to make money. Puzo’s experiences growing up in a poor immigrant family in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, combined with his fifteen years as a struggling writer, conditioned him to adopt a cynical view of wealth and power. Although he humanized wealthy, powerful men, the through-line of Puzo’s work is a healthy contempt for both money and authority. Yet Puzo’s cynicism is more than a thinly disguised cover for his resentment of those for whom comfort came easily: it is deeply interwoven into a personal philosophy about work, risk, and fate that stemmed from and buttressed his long-lasting fixation with gambling.

On its surface, The Godfather owes its popularity to its up-close-and-personal depiction of life on the inside of the Mafia. Indeed, organized crime has fascinated American audiences since the Prohibition era, although interestingly it did not enjoy much popularity in media during the Gilded Age or Progressive era, both of which saw substantial criminal empires (perhaps it is not coincidental that the mob as subject emerged alongside the rise of cinema as form). But the book is more than a story about Mafia corruption and vengeance. It is a generational epic, the story of a father and his children. It is a coming of age tale, in which Michael Corleone embraces his destiny to replace his father as the head of the family business. It is an immigrant saga, depicting the struggles and triumphs of Vito Corleone and his cohort as they find success in America, attempting to find meaning in the promises and pitfalls of the New World. Yet Puzo’s cynicism, more than family, more than culture, underlies his narrative. His conception of the land his parents chose is defined by his own worldview in which things are never quite as they seem, a sure bet is a guaranteed rip-off, and the only chance for success is to be on the side of those who rig the game. All of this Puzo learned from his impoverished childhood and confirmed in his experiences as a famously unsuccessful gambler.

A Gift in the Scale

Mario Puzo was born in 1920 in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan to a poor family of recent immigrants from Southern Italy. He was not Sicilian (as nearly all of his Mafiosi were) and he had no connections with organized crime outside of those that any incidental ones a law-abiding young man would have made in those days. His father worked for the New York Central Railroad before, when Puzo was seven, being institutionalized. His mother’s highest ambition for her youngest (of seven) children was that he be a railroad clerk. At sixteen, he announced he would become a writer, to her great confusion—only the sons of the nobility, she believed, had the cultivation to pursue artistic beauty. Indeed, Puzo was dragged into a dead-end job until he volunteered for service in World War II. He returned to a civil service job that sustained him before he was able to make a living writing for pulp magazines. He had more serious literary aspirations, though they were not rewarded. His second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, an autobiographical tale of an immigrant Neapolitan family in Hell’s Kitchen netted him $500 less than his first novel, The Dark Arena, published ten years earlier. And so, with a family and debt collectors to support, he allowed himself to be convinced to write a Mafia novel. The first two sentences of his account of “making” The Godfather say it plainly. “I have written three novels. The Godfather is not as good as the preceding two; I wrote it to make money” (The Godfather Papers 33).

Puzo was raised in sufficiently straitened circumstances to internalize the monumental importance that money assumes in the lives of the very poor. “Money was God. Money could make you free,” thinks Lucia Santa, a stand-in for the author’s mother, in The Fortunate Pilgrim (85). Later in the novel, an aside captures how poverty had informed the sensibilities of those who had raised Puzo:

It is easy to laugh at the prejudices of the poor, their reasoning springs from a special experience. How irritating to hear some thieving Sicilian say, “If you seek justice, put a gift in the scale.” How insulting to a noble profession when the sly Teresina Coccalitti whispered, “When you say lawyer, you say thief.” Lucia Santa had a saying of her own, “They who read books will let their families starve.” (Fortunate Pilgrim 202-203)

The ethos of Hell’s Kitchen—that government and business were corrupt, that only fools trusted them—Puzo traced to a Southern Italian peasant resentment of all authority. “For centuries,” he wrote in The Fortunate Pilgrim, “[Italy’s] government had been the most bitter enemy of their fathers and their father’s fathers before them. The rich spat on the poor. Pimps of Rome and the north had sucked their blood” (235). When, in The Godfather, Michael Corleone flees to Sicily after his murder of a drug dealer and his police captain protector, both he and the reader understand the roots of his family’s “contempt for authority and legal government” (309). As Puzo relates it, the Mafia was a heroic resistance to the succession of foreign powers that, for centuries, subjugated Sicily. Barons and bishops combined to oppress the peasantry, using the police as their instruments. For justice, peasants turned to the Mafia, who instituted omerta, the code of silence, walling off the people from their government entirely, leaving them dependent on the Mafia. The local Mafioso, Puzo writes, “was their social worker, their district captain ready with a basket of food and a job, their protector” (311).

Lest the reader become too enamored of the Mafia, Puzo then notes that the Mafia had itself become, “the illegal arm of the rich and even the auxiliary police of the legal and political structure. It had become a degenerate capitalist structure, anti-communist, anti-liberal, placing its own taxes on every form of business endeavor no matter how small” (311). In a 1967 piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Puzo lamented how Italian-language newspapers had opposed the union movement and social reforms, in stark contrast to the more progressive Jewish papers. The fault, he thought, “lay partly in the Italian character, their reliance on family rather than the social structure, their feudal dependence on the padrone because he, too, was of Italian blood” (The Godfather Papers 180). And yet, given their taste of the justice afforded them by the system, their insularity was not without reason.

America Has Made My Fortune

In America, Vito Corleone assumed that he would meet a power structure as corrupt and degrading as that of Sicily. He decided that it was better to be the exploiter than the exploited. Above all, Corleone advocated a complete suspicion of any social structure larger than one’s immediate circle; after all, how could one rely on strangers? “Friendship is everything,” he explained to his godson Johnny Fontaine (a fictionalized version of Frank Sinatra). “Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family” (33). When, during World War II, a few of the young men insist on volunteering for the armed forces despite his finding the deferments, he is perplexed. “This country has been good to me,” one of them relates. “I have been good to him,” the Don replied angrily when the remark is relayed to him (Godfather 211). His youngest son, Michael, defied him as well, volunteering for the Marine Corps, where he served with distinction in the Pacific theater, rising to the rank of captain. Some of his deeds were cataloged in a Life magazine photo spread. When a friend showed Corleone the magazine, the Don “grunted disdainfully and said, ‘He performs these miracles for strangers’” (14).

Although Puzo later said that he wished he had written it better (“I wrote below my gifts in that book,” he admitted), he never completely disowned The Godfather as his literary creation (The Godfather Papers 41). Written for purely mercenary reasons, The Godfather nevertheless contained much of Puzo. The title character, the author confessed, spoke in the voice of his mother. “He heard her wisdom, ruthlessness, and unconquerable love for her family,” explained his son Anthony (The Godfather vii). So even though Puzo wrote the book to make great money rather than great art, it contained much that was dear to him, much that was personal. A writer does not spend three years working on the book that he needs to change his luck without putting at least a piece of his soul into it.

In Puzo’s case, that soul is a sardonic one. His novel is grounded in the cynicism of his mother. The American Dream is just that, a mirage, for those who are so naïve to have faith in the nation’s institutions. This is plainly seen in The Godfather’s opening vignette. Amerigo Bonasera, a hard-working, honest undertaker who has foresworn any involvement with organized crime despite a personal connection to the eponymous Godfather through the close friendship of their wives, sits in New York Criminal Court Number 3 as the two young men who beat his daughter after she spurned their advances await their sentencing. He is astonished when the judge sentences them to three years imprisonment, sentence suspended due to the defendants’ youth and “fine families” (The Godfather 7). Inwardly he seethes: how could this have happened? “All his years in America, Amerigo Bonasera had trusted in law and order. And he had prospered thereby,” Puzo tells the reader, implying that such trust was misplaced. Indeed, Bonasera decides that for justice, he can only turn to Don Corleone (8).

A minor, albeit carefully constructed and vividly sketched character, Bonasera has a Dickensianly appropriate name, literally translated as “America good evening,” (eliding the u from buona sera). In small ways, it is clear that he is something of a noble hypocrite. He is conscientious in the execution of his duties as an undertaker, understanding as few else did that the technical aspects of his job, embalming and arranging the dead, were the least important. His true service to the bereaved was to serve as “a strict chaperon to death,” to modulate the mourners’ grief. He was pitch perfect in this role, “never cloying in the tender of his condolences, yet never was he offhand…. And he never, never deserted one of his clients on that terrible last night above ground” (The Godfather 242).[*] He focuses, perhaps, too much on appearances. His carefully selected clothes are described as comforting rather than somber, a calculated choice to put his clients at ease. Bonasera even takes an unprecedented step to keep up appearances. “He also kept his hair,” Puzo notes, “dyed black, an unheard-of frivolity in an Italian male of his generation, but not out of vanity. Simply because his hair had turned a lively pepper and salt, a color which struck him as unseemly for his profession” (242). Perhaps he believed that.

Bonasera’s obsession with surfaces (entirely appropriate given his job of giving a lifelike appearance to the dead) carries through in his relationship to Vito Corleone and his understanding of life in America. “I believe in America,” the undertaker says in the Don’s office, as he asks for “justice” for his brutalized daughter. “America has made my fortune” (Godfather 25). He refuses to offer Corleone friendship, although their wives are intimates, fearing trouble. But Corelone says he is hurt that Bonasera did not want his friendship. “You found America a paradise,” he tells his supplicant. “You thought the world a harmless place where you could take your pleasure as you willed. You never armed yourself with true friends. After all, the police guarded you, there were courts of law, you and yours could come to no harm” (26-27). Bonasera had squandered money on lawyers, Corelone tells him, who knew he was to be made a fool of, trusted in justice handed down by a judge “who sells himself like the worst whore in the streets” (28). And so Bonasera, reluctantly, offers his friendship to Don Corleone.

Some Humble Gift, Some Small Service

Puzo contrasts the foolhardy Bonasera with the pudgy baker Nazorine, a friend since Vito Corleone’s Sicilian childhood. Nazorine, too, comes to see the Godfather on his daughter’s wedding day, seeking a favor that concerns his daughter. Enzo, an Italian prisoner of war paroled to help the American war effort, has captured the eye of his only daughter, who threatens to run off to Italy if her beloved cannot stay in the United States. Over the years, Nazorine had delivered delicious pastries to the Corleone home for birthdays and holidays, had cheerfully paid dues to a bakers’ union organized by Corleone, asking a single favor in all those years: the chance to buy black market sugar. To keep Enzo from being deported to Italy, he knows he must go to Don Corleone. Despite their friendship, he still needs some prodding, so the Don sets him at ease. “He knew from bitter experience,” Puzo writes, “what courage it took to ask a favor from a fellow man” (18). Nazorine makes his requests, and is delighted when his friend carefully explains that to arrange citizenship for Enzo will take a special act of Congress, which would cost $2,000. Nazorine, “almost tearful in his thanks,” understands that such a favor would not come cheap and is grateful to have a man like Don Corleone to pull the levers of power for him. The steep price, Corleone’s consigliere (advisor) Tom Hagen notes, is actually quite a bargain: “a son-in-law and a cheap lifetime helper in his bakery all for two thousand dollars” (19).

The paired requests of Bonasera and Nazorine provide a fitting introduction to The Godfather. The reader learns that Don Corleone and, by extension, the subculture in which he thrives, valorizes the clients offering “friendship” to their patron. This was expressed by:

The respectful title of “Don,” and sometimes the more affectionate salutations of Godfather.” And, perhaps, to show respect only, never for profit, some humble gift—a gallon of homemade wine or a basket of peppered taralles specially baked to grace his Christmas table. It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service. (11)

It is not enough for his vassals to recognize the Don’s hold over them; they must demonstrate filial affection. In this, the Don is not far removed from the Party of George Orwell’s 1984, whose final triumph is not receiving the obedience of its subjects, but in convincing them to surrender themselves completely. The novel ends with Winston Smith achieving victory over himself, embracing the Party in his innermost soul: “He loved Big Brother” (245). The Don, similarly, requires not mere service or fealty, but adoration. His demand that his subjects embrace him shows that the Godfather’s magnanimity comes at a steep cost. With a reservoir of brute force and political connections to pry affection from his subjects, he is a weaponized version of The Office’s Michael Scott who demands that the workers at his branch of a struggling paper supply company love him. “Would I rather be feared or loved?” the Dunder Mifflin regional manager asked in a second-season cutaway interview. “Umm … easy, both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me” (“The Fight”). Don Corleone would have wholeheartedly agreed.

Equating the mob patriarch brought to the screen by Marlon Brando with the Dunder Mifflin regional manager is not apostasy, and probably would have had the approval of the author. Puzo himself intended to make the Don a vivid, perhaps sympathetic character, but not a noble one. Certainly Puzo was being deliberate when he noted that the Godfather had been exacting tribute from the baker for years, demanding that Nazorine pay dues to a union that, truth to be told, offered few benefits, and even more, that the baker love him for the privilege. And he does not hesitate in levying upon this man, whom he had known since childhood, a sum equivalent to over $26,000 in 2020 in return for a “favor” (MeasuringWorth.com). And the baker loves him even more.

As Lovingly as a Mother

On the surface, it seems that the reader is meant to be sympathetic to the humble Nazorine and contemptuous of the proud Bonasera. Nazorine understands how the world works: he himself, a barely literate baker, has no chance of navigating them complex legal and political waters that stood between him and citizenship for his prospective son-in-law. Bonasera foolishly assumes that the courts will give him justice and is shown his comeuppance on the novel’s first page. But Bonasera, though vain, does not suffer from overweening pride. He is simply timid. He does not spurn the Godfather’s friendship because he thinks himself better than the mob boss, but because he is afraid of getting in trouble. This was not an unfounded anxiety. Bonasera does not interfere with his wife’s friendship with Godfather’s wife. He merely does not want to use that friendship as a springboard to his own business friendship with the Don. His greatest sin is to take excessive pride in his lonely, difficult work.

The favors the Don extends to each man have repercussions in the novel, both concerning himself and his sons. After the Godfather is shot, a corrupt police captain removes the protective detail from the hospital where he is recuperating. Michael Corleone arrives that night to find his father alone. He stands in front of the hospital’s only entrance, hoping that his presence might deter the assassins who are en route to finish the job. A young man carrying a package approaches. It is Enzo, the baker’s helper and now son-in-law, coming merely to pay his respects, to offer friendship, to the stricken Don. Michael tells Enzo to leave quickly, as there may be trouble, including police. And then, the bravest character in the saga rises to the occasion:

He saw the look of fear on the young Italian’s face. Trouble with the police might mean being deported or refusal of citizenship. But the young man stood fast. He whispered in Italian, “If there’s trouble I’ll stay to help. I owe it to the Godfather.” (118)

Enzo’s presence gives the carload of assassins enough doubt (with two manning the door, is the hospital also filled with gunmen?) to send them moving on without firing a shot. The immigrant is smart enough to leave when the police arrive, but one could argue that he performs the noblest act in the book. Despite having no gun, despite being intensely vulnerable, he offers himself up out of simple gratitude for a favor that the Don had not done cheaply. It is a further measure of Nazorine’s love for the Godfather that he has apparently told Enzo that it is the Godfather, not he himself (who paid the $2,000), to whom Enzo owes his continuing presence in America. The Godfather’s friendship with the baker and by extension his helper vindicates Michael’s analogy to his girlfriend Kay Adams. His father’s “favors,” he explained, were like the caches of food left by Arctic explorers behind, left “just in case” they need them. No favor was without self-interest, and each had a string attached. “Someday he’ll be at each of those people’s houses, and they had better come across” (37-38).

The favor granted the baker saves the Godfather’s life and that of his son (a single bodyguard, it is implied, would not have deterred the gunmen). The favor granted the undertaker has grimmer returns. The Godfather assigns to a subordinate the task of arranging a brutal—although not fatal—beating for the two men who had attacked Bonasera’s daughter. The Godfather’s henchmen are virtuosos of violence—the beatings, which left the young men “pulps of human beings,” put both in the hospital for months and will require plastic surgery (60). For this service, which was far riskier than that asked by the baker, the Godfather accepted no remuneration. Though Bonasera was initially so grateful that he would have done anything for the Don, Puzo notes that, “time erodes gratitude more quickly than it does beauty” (243). So by the time he gets a call informing him that the Godfather is ready to ask for his favor, he complies only out of fear. He fears that he will be asked to secretly bury a body of one of the Corleone family’s victims in the gangland struggle, making him an accessory to murder. “If it came out, he would spend years in jail. His wife and daughter would be disgraced, his good name, the respected name of Amerigo Bonasera, dragged through the bloody mud of the Mafia war” (245). Worse yet, he realizes, if the other Mafia families learn of his service, they may murder him themselves. In his heart, he abandons everything in despair, cursing himself for begging vengeance from Don Corleone, cursing their wives’ friendship, even cursing “his daughter and America and his own success,” the three things dearest to him (245).

Then the Godfather arrives, with two men carrying a stretcher. He motions for them to leave before asking if Bonasera is ready to perform his service. Bonasera whispers his assent. Then, it is revealed:

Don Corleone was staring at the table. “I want you to use all your powers, all your skill, as you love me,” he said. “I do not wish his mother to see him as he is.” He went to the table and drew down the blanket. Amerigo Bonasera, against all his will, against all his years of training and experience, let out a gasp of horror. On the embalming table was the bullet-smashed face of Sonny Corleone. The left eye drowned in blood had a star fracture in its lens. The bridge of his nose and left cheekbone were hammered into pulp.

For one fraction of a second the Don put out his hand to support himself against Bonasera’s body. “See how they have massacred my son,” he said. (246)

The Godfather assumes that Bonasera loves him; his appeal to Bonasera’s pride (“all your powers”) is subtler. It is now the Godfather who is concerned about appearances. Interestingly, both men share lapses at the embalming table; Bonasera gasps at seeing the corpse (shameful for a veteran undertaker) and Corleone, for perhaps the only time in the novel, shows weakness, even if only for a fraction of a second. Bonasera, fearing the Godfather’s power above all, naturally prepares the body as instructed.

The language in the embalming table scene is curiously echoed after the Godfather’s own death:

Amerigo Bonasera had never done finer work, had discharged all obligations by preparing his old friend and Godfather as lovingly as a mother prepares a bride for her wedding. Everyone commented on how not even death itself had been able to erase the nobility and the dignity of the great Don’s countenance and such remarks made Amerigo Bonasera fill with knowing pride, a curious sense of power. Only he knew what a terrible massacre death had perpetrated on the Don’s appearance. (393)

The careful reader, of course, knows that the undertaker and mob boss were not “old friends,” that Bonasera only called him “Godfather” reluctantly. The reference to a wedding should remind us of that. Bonasera’s focus on appearances renders his final service to the Don an appreciated one. When no longer in a position to demand a favor in return, he worked on the corpse not clinically, but “lovingly.” But who does he love? Puzo, with Sicilian subtlety, tells us that it is not the Godfather, but his own ability. The mourners’ remarks about the Godfather’s noble appearance in his casket fill him not with love for the departed, but with pride. In the end, it was not friendship, not love that drove the undertaker to so exceptionally perform his duties. It was simple vanity.

It may not be a coincidence that the first mourners mentioned by name after this paragraph are “Nazorine, his wife, his daughter and her husband and their children,” resolving Enzo’s story as well (presumably he remained in America and as the baker’s son-in-law and now has children of his own). As at the start of the novel, so at the end, Nazorine and Bonasera, though they never meet, are linked. They show the two sides of the Don’s power: that granted willingly by those he rules over, that given transactionally or for self-interest. Both, it is clear, bolster the Godfather’s authority. A less cynical author might have had the good-hearted baker’s service to his beloved Godfather matter more, but in the end, it does not matter the motivation, but simply that the clients serve their patron.

All Honorable Men Here

Indeed, the Godfather himself is not above using his “friends’” misfortunes to advance his own interests, as can be expected in a novel by so cynical an author as Puzo. Relatively early in their careers, Nazorine helped the Don learn a valuable lesson. While still only a baker’s helper, he and his bride-to-be saved $300 to buy modest furnishings for their apartment. But the wholesaler who had “sold” them the furniture declared bankruptcy, leaving the warehouse sealed, the furniture undelivered. The poor baker’s apprentice would take his place behind the wholesaler’s other creditors, perhaps one day to recover pennies on the dollar. He turns to Don Corleone for help. The Godfather listens “with amused disbelief,” incredulous that the wholesaler, who owned a luxurious Long Island home, could legally keep the sweat money of the poor baker. Yet, thanks to the wholesaler’s legal machinations, it was true. Fortunately for Nazorine, the wholesaler, upon receiving a visit from a representative of the Godfather, immediately gives the baker his furniture (212). A poor man could not turn to the law for justice; only his friends could help him. This episode may have been the genesis of the Don’s oft-repeated truism that lawyers could steal more than stickup men. It is implied that he himself profited from similar schemes. And it opens the Don’s eyes up to the extent to which the law protects the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

Later, the Godfather himself almost falls prey to a scheme. Upon moving into his own Long Island home, a trio of “furnace inspectors” arrives to conduct an inspection. The Don’s bodyguard summons him to the basement, where the “inspectors” had disassembled the furnace and were demanding $150 to put it back in working order. Corleone referred the men to his son Santino, who had them held at gunpoint and beaten until they agreed to fix the furnace, tidy the basement, and never to return to the neighborhood (213). Puzo’s own family had fallen prey to such a scam. These experiences confirm to the Don the absence of any meaningful protection outside one’s own families of blood and circumstance, and that the law was not a bulwark against greed or malice.

Puzo’s Godfather held a special contempt for lawyers, even though he put his adopted son Tom Hagen through law school and took the extraordinary step of appointing him, a non-Sicilian, as his consigliere. The law was a weapon, not a system of justice. Nazorine’s close call with the furniture wholesaler was of a kind with the depiction of lawyers in The Godfather. “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns,” he repeatedly said, prompting Hagen to attend law school (46). Later, when trying to persuade his son Santino to finish school and get a law degree after the youth was discovered, at the age of sixteen, to have executed an armed robbery, he declares that “Lawyers can steal more money with a briefcase than a thousand men with guns and masks” (208). After Santino’s death, when welcoming a circle of Mafia leaders to a peacemaking parlay, he remarks: “We are all honorable men here, we don’t have to give each other assurances as if we were lawyers” (273).

Police, like lawyers, could be only trusted, maybe, to be reliably corrupt. It was a given that, due to the low pay afforded police, payoffs were institutionalized within the department itself. Only a fool would trust in their protection without having made arrangements—and even then, he should be leery. When Vito Corleone consolidated New York’s olive oil trade by force, there was one exceptional holdout: “One rash man, an arrogant Milanese with more faith in the police than a saint has in Christ, actually went to the authorities with a complaint against his fellow Italians,” Puzo writes, making it clear that this was an entirely unprecedented breach, mitigated only by the offender’s egotism and northern Italian extraction (201). Believing that the police would faithfully discharge their duties to protect and serve was a supernatural leap of faith hardly likely to be rewarded. The Milanese importer swiftly disappeared, and his heirs proved far more amenable to Vito’s “reason.”

Indeed, the lack of trust evinced by Puzo’s hardscrabble Italians extended even beyond this world. In his final novel, Omerta, Puzo has one character ask another why Sicilians venerate the Madonna so much more than Christ himself. The direct response is given with a shrug: “Jesus was, after all, a man, and so cannot be fully trusted” (173). It is possible that even the son of God, sent to our world to offer salvation, is working an angle. Best to be cautious.

Why Mario Puzo Was a Winning Gambler

Puzo, born in America, knew that the Mafia was an illiberal, repressive force, knew that the United States had allowed incredible opportunities for improvement. While a naïve reading of The Godfather suggests that the only hope for the powerless is to trust in the benevolence of Mafiosi, that was not the author’s intent. He knew that the Mafia was awful; it was just that a society that valued corporate profits over all else was worse. “Big business in America,” he wrote in 1976, “has always been more ruthless than our criminal elements” (Inside Las Vegas 67). “It’s always irritated me,” Puzo wrote in 1972, “that most critics missed the casual irony in my books” (The Godfather Papers 70). Of a 1966 Cavalier magazine piece entitled “How Crime Keeps America Healthy, Wealthy, Cleaner, and More Beautiful,” Puzo related that he had used “all the obvious ironies,” and that he was more oblique—but still ironic—in writing The Godfather. “So oblique in fact,” he wrote, “that most of the critics missed the irony in the novel and attacked me for glorifying the Mafia” (70).

The Godfather’s treatment of Nazorine and Bonasera during his daughter’s wedding (his lifelong friend he charges for a favor, the distant undertaker receives his gratis) should have tipped off readers that Puzo’s sympathies were not with the great Don. And, for all of the high-minded words about how the Don and his fellow underworld leaders are more honorable than judges or lawyers, they are constantly scheming and quick to take advantage of a moment’s weakness. The Don continually declared that friendship was the only buffer against misfortune. Yet he was betrayed by his own bodyguard, who had enjoyed a quick rise in his crime family. At the novel’s end, Michael is betrayed by Sal Tessio, who had stood by his father’s side for decades and prospered incredibly. Michael himself murders his brother-in-law as vengeance for his role in engineering Santino’s murder years earlier and lies convincingly about it to his wife. No moral compasses there.

So, for Puzo the poor and defenseless (including, for him writers making the jump to Hollywood, whose plight he regularly lamented) could not rely on their neighborhood Mafioso for real help. The same mistrust pervades not just The Godfather, but all of his written work. Even when others can ride the escalator of self-improvement to the comfortable middle class, his characters feel that this is an option denied them. In The Fortunate Pilgrim, Santa Lucia laments that by allowing her family small comforts (meat more than once a week, spending money for treats and movies, allowing them to attend school instead of work), they would all remain poor and miserable (85).

At the root of Puzo’s cynicism, his mockery of institutions, was his fundamental insecurity about money, a trait that defined him and his writing before the 1969 success of The Godfather. Brought up in poverty and uncertainty, there was no reason not to trust in something more certain than patient thrift and the benevolence of institutions: gambling which, win or lose, was honest, even when it was crooked. Playing Christmastime card games with his brothers, Puzo simply had to win—so much so, that he taught himself how to double deal (Inside Las Vegas 111). He did not do it out of greed, as he spent his ill-gotten gains on treats for his siblings, but as a need to feel the magic of winning. This was a sublime thrill approaching the magical. “What non-gamblers do not know,” he later wrote, “is the feeling of virtue when the dice roll as one commands…. And that omniscient goodness when the card you need rises to the top of the deck to greet your delighted yet confident eyes. It is as close as I have ever come to a religious feeling. Or to being a wonder-struck child” (Inside Las Vegas 110).

Gambling, even more than writing, might have been the force that sustained Puzo through his years of obscurity. Indeed, while Puzo wrote The Godfather from “research,” having never met, much less had the confidence, of a real Mafioso, he wrote knowingly about gambling. He shared with Dostoyevsky, whom he read and admired (there are obvious echoes of The Brothers Karamazov in The Godfather), a deep need to gamble. Puzo gambled because he wanted to “win everything. Is that so different from those religious fanatics who dare to think that after death they will go to their particular heaven?” (Inside Las Vegas 110). Sports betting, cards, and especially roulette were his games of choice. Gambling was the reason for at least some of the debts he had accrued before writing The Godfather (The Godfather Papers 34). Had Puzo not been a gambler, the world might never have known the Corleone family.

Puzo eventually came to embrace gambling not as a distraction from his writing, but as a fundamental element of it. He spent months researching a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece called, “Why Sally Rags Is a Winning Gambler” about a successful professional sports bettor (who has a brief cameo in The Godfather). Before and after writing that article, Puzo combined gambling at the Sands’ roulette tables with “research” on the mob, courtesy of dealers and pit bosses who had immediate experience (Walters 36-37). Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo lived at a Reno casino while working on the Godfather screenplay (and, ultimately, two other screenplays). When they hit a creative wall, Puzo would depart to the casino, where he would lose masterfully at roulette before returning in good humor. “I’m losing thousands down here but making millions upstairs,” he told Coppola (Godfather vi).

And he really did lose thousands. His gambling losses were notable enough to gain mention in Earl Wilson’s syndicated column in 1969 (Wilson 11). Puzo himself admitted to having been a “mildly degenerate” gambler, meaning that he knew the thrill of gambling as an all-consuming passion, but was able to prevent his vice from ruining his life (Inside Las Vegas 107).

It all came down to perspective. For Puzo, gambling is bad, but maybe not as bad as religion, which also gives false hope: “No gambling hell,” he writes, “deceives mankind as wickedly as religion deceives mankind about death” (Inside Las Vegas, 110).

Puzo sees gambling as far from ideal but better than most alternatives. While it would be great if people spent their free time actively working to make the world a better place, that was not happening. So why not gambling? “Gambling is not the right bargain to make in life,” he wrote. “Nor drugs. I could even make an argument against art” (Inside Las Vegas, 110). Puzo wrote from experience: surely his spending years writing for pulp magazine while chasing the grail of writing a literary masterpiece had hurt his family just as much, or maybe more than, his gambling.

In Puzo’s wisdom, it was just as logical and right to have faith in the next spin of the wheel as it was to live for wealth, success, God, or art.

Puzo scorned the pretension of those who held up old women playing slot machines as symbols of American decadence. He himself loved watching those women “intense as little children” waiting for a flood of silver dollars, “oblivious for those few hours to approaching death.” Others upbraided them for not evincing a greater concern for the world’s problems. Not Puzo. “Why should they give a fuck?” he asked. “They have lived their lives and they have paid their penalties” (Inside Las Vegas 111).

Even young people could be forgiven for gambling instead of seeking to make money through sheer willpower and hard work. “Many millions,” he wrote, “do not have the talent or pitiless cruelty for making money legitimately and do not have the merciless amorality to make money criminally.” Here he was reflecting on his own childhood, the family that had kept him mostly honest. “Come to think of it,” he added, “merciless amorality helps legitimate money makers” (110).

Because furnace inspectors, agents, lawyers, priests, and assorted other bugbears stood ready to peel off any money that a poor man or woman might hold onto, because art was almost certainly a disappointment, because misfortune could come at any moment, because there was no trust in any institution, why not gamble?

Conclusion: I’ll Take My Chances

Mario Puzo became famous writing about the Mafia, of which he had no personal knowledge. There is an irony and perhaps a lesson there. In his writing, nothing can be trusted, except that things will probably go badly for those who do not have an ace in the hole—and even then, they might go badly. Growing up poor, he knew that hardship came easily to good people. The rich were to be mocked, not admired. In The Godfather, he wrote of a young doctor, “with the air of one born to command, that is to say, the air of one who has been immensely rich all his life” (39). That contempt came from a childhood of privation.

And yet Puzo, unlike others, did not place his faith in art, or work, or mutual betterment. As a child, he found one thing that gave him the comfort that money and writing never did: gambling. It was the gateway to wonder for children, and a welcome retreat to childhood for adults. And if gambling games could be rigged, why not society itself? As a teenager he had given himself an advantage in curbside card games by dealing from the bottom of the deck; it would be truly naïve to imagine that more powerful and skillful men would not do the same when the stakes were higher. In a world where the only sure thing was the exhilaration that being dealt the perfect card—and even that was subject to more than chance—it made sense to trust in the authority of no one.

His experiences after becoming wealthy vindicated Puzo’s earlier mistrust of the system. He was approached by a friend who offered a surefire real estate deal that would save him taxes and allow him to leave a legacy for his children. Puzo hired a top lawyer and accountant to investigate. He then lost more money than he had lost in a lifetime of “foolish” gambling. “I’d have been a lot happier if I had lost that money gambling rather than investing,” he concluded. “Give me a deck of cards instead of a tax shelter and I’ll take my chances” (Inside Las Vegas, 43-44).

Puzo acknowledged that society benefited more when he gained money by hard work than by gambling, but could not help that he felt “more pure happiness winning twenty grand at the casino crap table than when I received a check for many times that amount as the result of honest hard work on my book” (244). With nothing to believe in—no politician that could not be bought, no Mafioso who would not betray out of greed or envy, no business that would put its own profits ahead of the public good—gambling was the only rue cleanliness he could touch.

“I think,” he concluded, “that the whole magic power of gambling lies in its essential purity from endeavor. No matter what our character, no matter what our behavior, no matter if we are ugly, unkind, murderers, saints, guilty sinners, foolish, or wise, we can get lucky” (244).

That faith in gambling alone fortified the cynicism that runs through his writing makes understandable the ironies of The Godfather. Puzo’s critics charged that he had glamorized the Mafia, but in fact he committed a much greater act of transgression: he had written a best-selling novel based on the premise that every enterprise touched by humanity is irredeemably corrupt. Transgressive, but not at all unexpected from a writer who fondly recalled dealing the ace of spades from the bottom of the deck as a child. It was the worldview of a gambler, who like all gamblers, had lost far more than he had won, and could not wait for the chance to play again.

[*] This ambiguity is a delightful display of Puzo’s literary skill. Who is his client, the deceased or the bereaved? Most would assume the former (for whom, after all, is this the last night above ground?), but Bonasera believes it is the latter. Funerals are, they say, for the living.

 

Works Cited

MeasuringWorth.com, “How much is a dollar from the past worth today?” https://www.measuringworth.com/dollarvaluetoday/?amount=2000&from=1946

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classics, 1961.

Puzo, Mario. The Godfather Papers & Other Confessions. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972.

Puzo, Mario. Inside Las Vegas. Grosset & Dunlap, 1977.

—. The Fortunate Pilgrim: A Novel. Ballantine, 1997.

—. Omerta. New York: Random House, 2000.

—. The Godfather. 50th Anniversary ed., Berkley, 2019.

“The Fight.” The Office, season 2, episode 6, NBC, 1 Nov. 2005.

Walters, Edward. Oral History Interview. UNLV Oral History Research Center, 2016.

Wilson, Earl. “It Happened Last Night.” Las Vegas Review-Journal. 3 Nov. 1969.

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