A big, messy, ambitious, both brilliant and embarrassing, partly autobiographical novel by the author of The Godfather--and fans of that blockbuster will be thrilled with only about half of it. Puzo probably writes about money better than anyone since Balzac, and, in one of the most mesmerizing first chapters in recent fiction, he introduces us to three "degenerate gamblers" one night in Las Vegas circa 1959: casino stoolie Cully, boyishly intense Merlyn, and middle-aged runaway Jordan, who wins half a million this one night at the tables and then shoots himself. Though Jordan's image and the irony of his big win haunts the whole book, the focus then shifts to--and stays with--writer Merlyn, whose interest as a hero-narrator decreases as his fortunes rise. Living in the Bronx with wife and kids, supporting them and his serious writing efforts with a civilian job in the Army Reserves, Merlyn is immensely appealing--whether compulsively disappearing for a gambling binge in Vegas or succumbing to the temptation of bribes from would-be Reservists: the money piles up ("I had become the Tiffany's of bribe-takers"), and Merlyn must turn to Cully (now on the rise in Vegas casino management)--who helps him launder the cash and saves him from jail when the bribe scandal is exposed. But when Merlyn starts to climb in the literary world and then scores with a whopping best-seller, the book loses its tension and drifts into cliches--vigorously, often hilariously fleshed out--but cliches nonetheless. There's the kitchen-sink portrait of famous writer Osano, who's a brawling, wenching, dying composite of Mailer and a half-dozen others, mouthing such Hemingwayisms as "Cunt is the only thing worth living for. Everything else is a fake. . . ." And, worse, there's Merlyn vs. Hollywood--those ruthless hacks are raping his book--and Merlyn & His Hollywood Mistress; previously faithful to wife Val (self-righteously so), Merlyn falls for actress Janelle--liberated, smart, funny, and bisexual ("Sure she fucked other guys and women too, but what the hell, nobody's perfect"). Puzo obviously wants to say Big Things about survival (fools die), art vs. money, love vs. sex, and (most successfully, as in Godfather) betrayal vs. loyalty; and a lot of readers will feel that loquacious Merlyn, supposedly so modest, is awfully full of himself. But whenever the money is changing hands--which is pretty often--Fools Die does indeed live, breathe, and squirm with the "magic" of writing that Merlyn (he was an orphan and named himself) keeps bragging about.