Mario Puzo: An American Writer’s Quest

By M. J. Moore

Heliotrope Books | 2019

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

A Quest Indeed!

author M.J. Moore

There was one missing aspect of Moore’s exceptional book detailing the ups and downs of author Mario Puzo, in his quest to be recognized as a gifted writer of refined, literary novels; a quest that he never fully was able to achieve.

The world of literary fiction books in the 50’s and 60’s was centered in Manhattan and it was mainly a world of WASPS, Jews and a few other Northern Europeans. They were the writers, editors, agents, and critics of books, magazines and newspapers. There were also a few late-night NYC local television shows that featured authors. (One famous night I stayed up late to watch enfant terrible Truman Capote when he was asked what he thought of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road? “That was not writing; that was typing.” he said in that famous voice of his in one of the greatest literary put-downs in American history! I laughed my teenage ass off.)

However, there were few Italians to speak of. As a result, look at this bird eye’s view of some of the important books of the 50’s, to see what I mean: Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (1950), C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), James Jones, From Here to Eternity, 1951, Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (1951), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952), Bernard Malamud, The Natural (1952), Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952), Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (1952), John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952), Kurt Vonnegut, Piano Player (1952), E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952), Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1953, Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953), James Baldwin, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (1953), William S. Burroughs, Junky (1953), J. D. Salinger, Nine Stories (1953), William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954), Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (1954), Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954), Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), J. P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man (1955), Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955), Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955), John Ashbery, Some Trees (1956), Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (1956), Dodie Smith, The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956), James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (1956), Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (1956), John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957), Bernard Malamud, The Assistant (1957), Nevil Shute, On the Beach (1957), Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana (1958), Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958), T. H. White, The Once and Future King (1958), Robert Bloch, Psycho (1959), Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959), Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959), John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959).

This was quite an array of exceptional literary talent. Just looking at these titles, you can see that this was an incredible output never seen in America before, and this was just a snapshot of an even larger output.  Also, note that black Americans writer’s names were also called, although there were almost no blacks working in the literary world as editors or publishers or agents during this period. What they had going for them, besides talent, was the enormous roar of Brown vs The Board of Education and the start of the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

However, in the literary world of New York City in the 50’s and 60’s, where were the Italian Americans, whose names were rarely called in one of the most exciting literary times in American history?

Here is how Moore fully capsulized the 50’s and early 60’s: “To be an aspiring writer in those years was to have at least some sense of being at the red-hot center of a vibrant, important, national culture. Regardless of whatever had accompanied anyone’s quest to become a published author, it was clear in season after season that strong talents could be remembered, and superlatives works were able to make it through the pipeline of the publishing industry.”

Puzo’s first attempt to join this crowd was his first novel The Dark Arena. He was turned down by several publishers but was finally picked up by Random House. Writes Moore, “Random House, the largest and at that time the most prestigious American publisher, brought The Dark Arena on January 20, 1954. They paid a tiny sum in the form of an advance. By this time Mario was again working full-time at a Civil Service job.”

I should point out that Puzo was married and had three young children to feed at this time.

The novel went nowhere. Writes Moore, “Critiques of The Dark Arena ranged from laudatory and welcoming to dismissive and downright insulting. The novel provoked serious reactions, one way or the other.”

It wasn’t until 1964 was his second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim put in production. It seemed that Mario Puzo was on his way to fame and fortune when the book was finally published.

“When published in January 1965, the novel received the praise all writers long for,” writes Moore.

The New York Times, The Saturday Review of Literature and, many other magazines and newspapers heaped honors on him. One critic even compared him to Hemingway. And, to top it off, a noted Hollywood producer, John Foreman, took him to lunch.

“John Foreman was dynamic,” Mario recalled. “For three hours he talked about my book, how he loved it. How he was determined to do a movie. He quoted all the best parts. As he left, he said he would call my agent the next day and arrange the financial details of the contract. Nobody ever heard from him again.”

In the end, The Fortunate Pilgrim, made even less money than his first novel. His first novel from 1955 netted him $3, 500 and the second one in 1965 netted him $3,000. Writes Puzo to a friend, “I was going downhill fast. Yet the book (The Fortunate Pilgrim) received some extraordinarily fine reviews. The New York Times called it ‘A small classic.’ I immodestly think of it as art.”

For the next few years, Puzo wrote pulp fiction for men’s magazines that were several steps down from Playboy. He also now had five off-springs to support. Mario soon became a master of this kind of fiction and was able to keep his head above water and feed his growing family. But still he pined for recognition as an important writer.

Puzo tried hard to find another publisher for a novel he had in mind, with no takers. Yet a publisher set off a chain reaction by remarking that “If Fortunate Pilgrim had only had a little more of the Mafia stuff in it the book would have made money.”

The passage of time had not dimmed America’s perennial fascination with gangster tales. What we had in the 50’s was televised congressional hearings about organized crime, and in the early 60’s we heard the testimony of Joseph Valachi, a lifelong criminal.  Writes Moore, he had “deep roots in the Sicilian-based East-Coast mob network who explained in his testimony what Cosa Nostra was all about.” The American public also had the hit television show The Untouchables to watch weekly.

It didn’t take long for Puzo to catch on. All those years writing pulp fiction to feed his family, as well as writing a literary masterpiece like the Fortunate Pilgrim you can almost see the lightbulb going off in his head: why not combine both into one novel?

The results were The Godfather, which became the bestselling book of all time worldwide, next to the Bible, and two of the greatest movies ever made in Hollywood. The middle-aged, overweight father of five, with the same wife until her death, finally made quite a name for himself. M. J. Moore also has made quite a name for himself by writing this excellent book.

Fred Beauford is the editor of the Neworld Review

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