An exploration of the life and work of Mario Puzo (1920-1999).
In 1969, 14 years after his first novel appeared—and quietly disappeared—Puzo catapulted to fame with the publication of The Godfather. Drawing on Puzo’s autobiographical nonfiction, essays, published interviews, and memoirs by his friends and fellow writers, Moore (For Paris—With Love & Squalor, 2017) fashions an admiring portrait of the self-described “working-class novelist” whose spectacular success ended years of professional disappointment. Puzo grew up poor, amid “the grimy odors, the sooty filth, and the oily stenches” of Manhattan. Summers in New Hampshire, courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund, and sports and arts programs at the Hudson Guild Settlement House nourished his spirit. Sports, cards, and voracious reading became his choice activities. His future, though, seemed bleak to him, and he described the period between 18 and 21 as unremittingly miserable. In 1941, he was “delighted,” he admitted, to join the Army. When the war was over, he stayed on in the military in Germany and married a German woman. Postwar Europe, Moore observes, “was rife with intrigue, dangerous in ways that an ambitious writer would appreciate for sheer narrative intensity.” That atmosphere found its way into Puzo’s first novel, The Dark Arena, garnering critical praise but “general indifference” from readers. Moore chronicles Puzo’s money problems (with a wife and five children to support), affinity for gambling, and work frustrations. In 1962, he resigned from a government job to become a full-time staff writer at the Magazine Management Company, where he would turn out 30,000-40,000 words per month under various pen names before going home to write his own novels. Hard as he worked, though, he was always in debt—until he took an editor’s advice to write about “that Mafia stuff” that had appeared in some of his stories. It was advice well-taken: Readers made The Godfather a bestseller for 67 weeks, and it has lived on as a movie and sequels.
Puzo’s fans will appreciate this warm portrait.