Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When I first began reading The Last Don, the plot felt a little familiar. On the day his grandson and great nephew were being christened, a Mafia Don was making arrangements for his Family to get out of the business and go straight. One son, Vincent, would go into the restaurant business, one son, Petie, would go into the construction business, and the eldest son, Giorgio, would become a financier on Wall Street. Instead of running drugs, the Family would take a cut from other families in return for money laundering and other administrative tasks. Instead of Michael Corleone, however, the Don was named Domenico Clericuzio. I almost expected to hear the music from "The Godfather" playing while I read the book. This is not the story of Don Domenico or his three sons. Instead it is the story of his nephew, Pippi De Lena, and great nephew, Cross De Lena, with a large amount of Hollywood thrown in.
The book reads like The Godfather in many ways. Like Puzo's earlier novel, The Last Don is episodic with a large cast of characters. In addition to a main plot, which could only fill a novel perhaps 1/3rd the size, Puzo fleshes out the characters and situations by flashing back to earlier times in the characters' relationships. The most important of these flashbacks is first hinted at in the opening section, with references to the recent "Great Santadio War." Happening in 1964, this event is frequently mentioned as a defining moment in the Clericuzio Family. It is the cause of the Don's daughter's insanity as well as the loss of his youngest son, Silvio. The War is when Pippi somehow proved himself to the Don as a Hammer of the Clericuzio. None of the details are given out until quite later in the novel. When Puzo does revisit the War, the details are surprising, although the War itself leaves the reader thinking "huh?"
One of the interesting things about this book (as well as Puzo's The Godfather and the three movies based on that novel) is the way Puzo can take characters whose morality opposes common morality and make them likeable. In this novel, the majority of the characters are likeable. Of the Clericuzio, only the Don and his grandson, Dante, are fleshed out enough to really be characters. The Don's three sons and daughter are mostly spear carriers. They are needed for the plot, but show very little character. I have a feeling that the attitude of the Don that "Everybody is responsible for everything he does." is part of the reason I enjoyed this book. It is an attitude which, unfortunately, seems to be lacking from modern American culture.
The major plot of the novel deals not with Mafioso, but rather with Hollywood, an area in which the Don has chosen not to work because he feels that the movers and shakers of Hollywood are crooked in a non-respectful way. Unlike the Don, producers and studio-owners don't understand the importance of an agreement. Cross De Lena, however, is pulled into the world of movies by his sister Claudia's pleas for help when her best friend, the actress Athena Aquitane, threatens to walk of the set of a movie based on one of Claudia's scripts. At the Academy Awards, Athena's ex-husband, Boz Skannet, threw a bottle of water in her face with the threat that the next time it would be acid. Contacted by Athena and Claudia in the hopes that Cross could do something about Skannet, Cross immediately fell in love with Athena and decided he wanted to be able to make movies in which she appeared.
Cross's desire to make movies causes him to take action without the Family's approval. Although he knows he is moving into territory forbidden by the Don, he justifies his actions with the knowledge that the Don wants to go legitimate, and this is one way of doing so. It is Cross's love for Athena and his move into Hollywood that forms the driving force of this novel.
The Last Don is an enjoyable novel, although troublesome for the way it makes the violence of the Mafia seem like just another cost of doing business. This is a world in which, although held responsible for their actions by the Don, vigilante justice runs wild. The only place for police and judges is on the payroll of an individual. Unlike lesser humans, the Don and his Family are not responsible for their deeds in the sense that no punishment is forthcoming.
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