Although Mario Puzo actually wrote about a great many subjectsgambling, politics, postwar military life, the Italian-American immigrant experiencea single, lucrative obsession surfaced in his fiction again and again: the history and evolution of the Mafia in 20th-century America. His final novel, the posthumously published Omerta, revisits that obsession and forms the independent third installment in a thematic trilogy that began with The Godfather and continued, in 1995, with The Last Don. In these three novels and in their 1984 sibling, The Sicilian, Puzo created a fictional world with a mythical resonance all its own and invested the realities of organized crime with a lurid, operatic grandeur.
Omerta introduces a new Mafia family worthy of the Corleones and the Clericuzios: the family of Don Raymonde Aprile. Their story begins in Sicily in 1967, when the dying Don Vincenzo Zeno"the last of the true Mafia chiefs"entrusts the young Raymonde Aprile with the task of raising his soon-to-be-orphaned two-year-old son, Astorre. Following this brief prologue, the novel moves forward nearly 30 years to the world of contemporary New York. Don Raymonde is now retired and has realized one of the great dreams of the career criminal: He has become legitimate. In the grand tradition of the American robber barons, he has extricated himself from all illegal activities, helped his children establish themselves in safe, prestigious professions, and become "a gentleman banker and pillar of society." Three years after his retirement, he is shot to death on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral by a pair of professional hit men.
In the aftermath of the Don's death, Astorre, his adopted son, takes center stage. Astorre, on the surface, is a harmless sort: a wedding singer, horseman, and ladies' man who earns his living by managing the Aprile family's macaroni franchise. He is also a "Qualified Man," trained in the ways of the old Mafiosi and steeped in the Sicilian traditions of honor and vengeance. Astorre attempts to follow his late guardian's instructions by protecting the Aprile heirs and by preserving the integrity of their multibillion dollar banking interests. But at the same time, he follows the dictates of the ancient code of Omerta and ruthlessly pursues the men responsible for Don Raymonde's murder.
Astorre's quest brings him into contact with a vivid, often vile gallery of supporting characters. Among them are a rival Mafia chieftain with his own undisclosed agenda; a South-American drug lord with a demented desire to own and operate his own nuclear arsenal; an FBI agent whose obsessive dedication leads to tragic consequences; two lethal, deeply compromised NYPD homicide detectives; and a pair of charming, athletic fraternal twins who specialize in murder for hire. Astorre's encounters with these and other, violent and corrupt players nearly cost him his life and culminate in a bloody confrontation in which justiceSicilian styleprevails.
Omerta is a spare, tightly plotted novel that encapsulates the changing nature of the Cosa Nostra in little more than 300 pages, moving from the hill towns of Sicilywhere patriarchal chieftains rule with Biblical authorityto the boardrooms of Manhattan, where modern bandits wear three-piece suits and theorize about "synergy" and "global syndication." Omerta may not be Puzo's masterpieceit's slightly less involving than its predecessors, and a number of passages have an underdeveloped, slightly unfinished qualityand it's unlikely to eclipse the popularity of The Godfather. Still, it's a gripping book by a gifted writer who was both a craftsman and a storyteller and who opened up a corner of the world that no other novelist saw as clearly, or wrote about as well.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His most recent book is At the Foot of the Story Tree, a critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub.
About the Author
Mario Puzo was born in New York and, following military service in World War II, attended New York's New School for Social Research and Columbia University. His bestselling novel The Godfather (1969) was preceded by two critically acclaimed novels, The Dark Arena (1955) and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965). In 1978, he published Fools Die, followed by The Sicilian (1984), The Fourth K (1990), and the second installment in his Mafia trilogy, The Last Don (1996), which became an international bestseller and the highest-rated TV miniseries of 1997.
Mario Puzo also wrote many screenplays, including those for Earthquake, Superman, and all three Godfather movies, for which he received two Academy Awards. He died in July 1999 at his home on Long Island, New York, at the age of 78.