If there's one out-of-print book that I'd like to make reappear on shelves everywhere, it would be Mario Puzo's sole collection: The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions.
It was issued in March 1972, as a tie-in with the theatrical release of Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of The Godfather. The novel had already sold millions of copies before the film premiered and then sold more than any other book in the world (except the Bible) throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s
No serious writer ever beat fate with the panache of Mario Puzo. But no writer paid a more serious price for his commercial success.
Thanks to The Dark Arena in 1955 and The Fortunate Pilgrim in 1965, Puzo earned the high praise of literary critics. Sales, however, were dismal. Broke, in debt, nearly 50, with five children and some health problems, he vowed to write a bestseller.
When The Godfather appeared in 1969, his mythic tale enthralled the world (and continues to do so). But from that moment on, he was dead meat to the literati. Even now, his first two novels are scandalously ignored.
The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions offers abundant personal essays ("Choosing a Dream," his meditation on his Italian-American pedigree, is superb) and a number of long-form articles that were originally published in The New York Times Magazine; plus some insightful, deeply felt book reviews highlighting that before The Godfather made him rich (if not respected), Puzo still had the guts to dress down everyone from Norman Mailer to Norman Podhoretz.
There are also two excellent short stories (as textured and varnished as anything by Updike or Cheever) and a hefty slew of quotations from a journal Puzo kept between 1950-1954.
Writers striving today can draw strength from Puzo’s “Notes from an Unsuccessful Writer’s Diary.” Some samples:
But money is really killing everything. I have to work too much overtime. I’m too tired to do any writing . . . Paralyzed by this being in debt. What is hardest to bear is that in those people near to me I do not inspire confidence, or love, or trust, or faith, or respect . . . I think I tried hard. I tried as hard as I could . . .
Not confidence, ego, arrogant blind recklessness . . . but [the] ability to accept all the blows to self-esteem and happiness with hope . . . and pleasure in your art.
The self-pity in all the previous pages would be inexcusable if it were expressed openly to the people involved. I write it here to get rid of it as a health measure. Because the sad fact is that everyone is caught in his own little trap of hopes; they resent me as I resent them. I disappoint them as they disappoint me. Accept.
When assessing Puzo’s first novel for The Saturday Review in 1955, Maxwell Geismar wrote: "I should add that the book is written in the only new language to emerge in our literature since the stylistic innovations of Hemingway. The folk language of the G.I.’s may be shocking, but it is a remarkably colorful, open, and pungent form of speech, which is recorded here with great fidelity. ‘The Dark Arena’ is impressive and illuminating.”
Mario Puzo’s nonfiction is equally illuminating. And no less impressive.