The Fourth K, by Mario Puzo

February 8, 2014 at 17:47 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , )




Frightful. This hyperactive and blindly fumbling mess begins by dragging its feet before proving there are other, and more painful, things to drag. A hallowed master of the crime genre demonstrates with fitful incompetence everything that is wrong with the modern political thriller. If it were not painfully obvious how out of his depth Puzo is, and how desperately he is trying to cobble a story together out of a heap of misshapen jetsam, it might be plausible to regard this utter wreck as misplaced satire: a cracked and absurd lampoon of airport adventure novels. The simple fact is, The Fourth K is worse than any pulp novel one might snatch up at random from a supermarket shelf.

“On the balcony the body of the Pope seemed to rise up off the ground, the white skullcap flew into the air, swirled in the violent winds of compressed air and then drifted down into the crowd…”

-The Fourth K

The question that must be asked is not ‘what is so bad about this book’, but ‘which straw is that fatal addition that breaks the camel’s back?’ Sadly (for nobody should glory in the public failure of a gifted man) the answer is that an autopsy would find this camel to have multiple greivous fractures, all throughout its shattered body. The man who once offered us Vito Corleone seems to have forgotten how to write a character. The titular President Kennedy is a hollow and inconsistent wreck, and it becomes plain only a short way into the book that the author himself is trying with increasing urgency to find a way into his character, glancing quickly at him through an array of different perspectives and supporting characters as if to find some point of view that makes him interesting, original, or even believable.

Two other grotesques leer above the slipshod writing, the hackneyed metaphors and the tersely uninspired dialogue to smear their foul taste across this book’s hideous carapace. The first is Puzo’s maddening habit of introducing a character marked clearly for death, and simpering on for a few pages about this nonentity’s history, or hopes and dreams, or particular foibles–before killing him or her, as any but a dullard must know he would. This is insulting to the reader. It’s a waste of time, and it’s openly manipulative. It’s a padding technique used by the very worst novice writers to inject sterile empathy into the last dying embers of a failing book. For shame, Mario. You’re better than this.

The second is the entirely gratuitous pen which Puzo uses to dribble sordid and graphic accounts of entirely insignificant characters’ intimate exploits over soiled pages. The flimsy argument that these scenes might be important for the development of certain characters¬† does not even hold the usual trickle of water here, as these recurring scenes are never relevant to either the twisted, ugly plot; or to the pace of the book; or to the understanding of the characters themselves. They are paltry attempts at titillation, and they succeed only in darkening and souring the tone of the book, and in derailing further the mad, mad aberrance that might by some charitable stretch of the imagination be called a storyline. This is a dreadful, sad excuse for a book.


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The Sicilian, by Mario Puzo

March 14, 2012 at 14:35 (Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller) (, , )


It was bold of Mario Puzo to co-opt the mythology of Sicily for the sake of his own Corleone saga. He could be accused of rank opportunism, if he didn’t manage his recast legend so well. The story is something of an origins story for Michael Corleone, but Puzo has the good graces and good sense to know that Michael Corleone could never have been the focus of this book; and he is thus a suitably peripheral character, dancing around the edges of the fictionalised (and suitably romanticised) history. This was obviously a good decision from a storytelling point of view, and it also makes the choice to tell this story at all seem much less cynical.

It would have been more enjoyable as an historical fiction if Puzo’s obsession with his idealised honourable criminal (either as mafiosi or as Guiliani’s bandits) had not so coloured the narrative: and as greedy men and bitter men and foolish men and petty men murder each other with grave faces and noble-sounding words, it is difficult to take much of it very seriously. Puzo might have been writing a substrata of criticism into his work, but it seems infinitely more likely that he truly bought into his own mythology; and in the end, bought into it just a bit too much to write a completely engrossing book.

“Finally the two men and their donkey vanished over a rise in the street, but she kept watching…as if she would never see them again, until they disappeared in the late morning mist around the mountaintop. They were vanishing into the beginning of their myth.”

-The Sicilian

The romance between Guiliani and his matronly lover is sensitively portrayed and seldom grotsequely graphic, although this book would not be by Mario Puzo if it was entirely fresh and clean. The weakest moments (besides the constant and nagging feeling that Puzo is taking the absurd codes of his creatures utterly seriously) tend to be the montage scenes that show the young gangster growing up: but Puzo cannot be blamed for this weakness, as it is a rare writer indeed who can write a blameless training montage. This is not quite a jewel in the rough. It cannot be accurately called a jewel, and nor is it completely buried in the rough. It is a good book, though not the best. And it has flaws, but has not been completely ruined by these flaws.

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The Family, by Mario Puzo

April 5, 2011 at 15:34 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller) (, , , )


With the title and the name of the author splashed so gratuitously over the cover, it is not necessary to read the afterword to discover that Mario Puzo believed the Medieval papacy to be some kind of proto-mafia. With this entirely questionable retroactive commentary openly taking the helm, the book advertises itself rather clearly as just another pulp fiction disguised as history. Of course, this is admittedly “just” another pulp fiction written by one of the masters of the genre, and written about some of the most hotly contested and colourfully animated figures from history! Puzo does not pretend to be a brilliant historical writer, and he is not. He paints his picture in wide strokes, trotting Renaissance personalities through his circus proudly and dropping famous names at the slightest provocation. The most amusing of these is Machiavelli, who Puzo is clearly desperate to develop, yet just as clearly realises that Machiavelli has no real role in the story.

Very little of this is necessary, and thankfully none of it takes front seat. This book (despite its grandiloquent name and ambitious theme) is about precisely what it claims: a family more than a dynasty. There is a backdrop of vaguely-outlined history, but Puzo wisely stays with what he knows: the interactions between human beings. Much of this book seems like it might have been set in the 1920s, and a reader might be excused for expecting Cesare to whip out a revolver in a passionate game of cards. Mario Puzo is not the most sanitised of writers, and when dealing with such profligate characters as the Borgias, one might expect lesser writers to eagerly ladle great dollops of graphic detail about murders and sexual indiscretions alike. Remarkably, Puzo treats the whole story (including the infamous rapacity of the Borgia family) with the style of a proximate gentleman, and if he needs to acknowledge sordid deeds, then he does so without revelling in them. If he leans closer to the interpretations of some of the more salacious historians, then he can be excused, for his genre demands it; but at least he treats the characters as men and women, and if no hero is above a little blackening, then neither is any villain above redemption.

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