There are three Godfather novels besides those written by Mario Puzo: The Godfather Returns and The Godfather’s Revenge by Mark Winegardner and The Family Corleone by Ed Falco. These novels have their strengths and weaknesses, but, overall, I find that the Falco work contributes more to the Godfather world than do the Winegardner novels. Let’s discuss.
There is a lot to like about The Godfather Returns and The Godfather’s Revenge. Seeing how the Family businesses operate is neat, although it makes the claim (from The Godfather) about Michael’s successful year of negotiation following his ascension to Don seem a bit incomplete, if he’s still killing folks and not doing a very good job of it. The background on the relationship between Michael and Vito is, overall, spot on. I like the way the Corleones take over the movie studio in The Godfather’s Revenge. Most importantly, the ideology (if you will) behind the Mafia is developed fairly well: the emphasis on favors, the importance of relationships balanced by the total lack of trust of anyone; the way greed can undermine businesses. It’s all nicely done and quite convincing.
There are too many things that undermine the characterization of the characters from The Godfather, though, for me to not be constantly irritated while reading. Fredo as gay is out of nowhere and kind of what used to be called politically incorrect (it’s implied that he becomes gay due to molestation by a Catholic priest). I like Johnny Fontane until he marries (!) Sonny Corleone’s daughter (!!) with Michael’s approval (!!!); the whole point of Fontane’s arc in the original story is that he can’t make monogamy work, but he learns to make the rest of his life work. Tom Hagen in politics is a big switch for a man whose whole purpose has been to be a behind-the-scenes assistant and intermediary for those in power.
The biggest problem, though, is Nick Geraci. I think Winegardner is trying to do a dual-protagonist thing, but it never really comes off. Geraci as Tom Hagen’s killer feels cheap, a bone thrown in to make Geraci seem more formidable and give some strength to the conflict between Geraci and Michael. But who cares about Nick Geraci? We’re constantly told that Geraci is a great earner and so on, but we never really see it, the way we see Michael actually act as a capable Don. Geraci succeeds because the people he’s dealing with are either not terribly competent or stringing him along. And why does he have to be the best? Smarter than Michael, warmer than Fredo, tougher than Sonny. It’s poor development of the character that at the same time undermines other characters. When Michael wins, it feels lucky, that he’s the favorite and should win.
I think The Family Corleone does a better job of what this kind of expanded universe thing should do: enrich and expand the original material. Plus, it’s closer to Puzo’s style, perhaps because it was based on an unfinished draft of a screenplay by Puzo. The stories we get, especially about Luca Brasi and the Irish gangster, are interesting and explain things about the later Godfather stories. I especially like the Luca subplot — we understand just why everyone is so afraid of him and learn how Vito became his boss. The story behind Luca is that he’s this suicidal psychopath who is so extraordinary that he can’t be killed, despite his self-hatred and thus constant willingness to put himself at risk; Falco makes that seem like a real character. We also see some measure of how Vito is such a good Don: he can understand, even control, a man like Luca Brasi. And Vito’s goals are a little more meaningful, a little easier to understand, when we see him trying to create a better life for his kids.
Still, there are some conflicts with The Godfather. Some of these can be overlooked; Sonny seeing Vito kill Tom Hagen’s father instead of Fanucci changes things, but not too much. But some have real significance. Genco Abbandando is supposed to be Vito Corleone’s wisest adviser and closest friend, but Genco comes across as easily excited and kind of an idiot. Tessio and especially Clemenza seem much closer and more important than does Genco.Why does Vito keep this guy around?
More important are the related changes to Sonny’s character and the nature of Vito Corleone’s fight with the unorganized gangs of New York. Part of the story of Sonny is that he’s the violence of his and his father’s way of life, personified: temperamental, angry, and physically imposing. It is this nature which ultimately gets him killed: he can’t build alliances or make peace like his father can, but he can win a fight better than just about anyone. This brutality leads to the Five Families believing that the only way they can survive is to kill Sonny (and it’s his temper that they use). And we’re supposed to initially see this, at least as described in The Godfather, when Sonny takes over for his wounded father. But Vito is never seriously hurt, and Sonny never shows his genius for street-fighting. He’s a mostly competent small-time gang leader and a tough guy, but that’s it.