A section from
‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II
THE LAST DON - MARIO PUZO
If the Clericuzio Family was the Holy Church for the Mafia empires scattered over the United States, then the head of the Family, Don Domenico Clericuzio was the Pope, admired not only for his intelligence but for his strength.
Any reader who knows of Puzo’s interest in the Borgia family will easily make the connections between the Borgia and the mafia as Puzo sees it.
Mario Puzo’s first mafia masterpiece traced the journey of a crime family into legitimate society, from a respected family to business powerhouse. But the Corleone never managed to evade tragedy; the saga ended in the film Godfather III with Michael Corleone recalling the loss of his wives and daughter before dying alone and forsaken.
In The Last Don Mario Puzo answers the unasked question . . . What if?
What if the crime family had successfully assimilated into legitimate society?
What if the Don lived long enough to guide it to that end?
What if the family’s assassin didn’t have to ‘sleep with the fish’?
What if the succeeding generation wasn't cursed with tragedy?
What if the succeeding generation wasn't blessed with pure Mafiosi genes?
What if the bad seeds of the family were rooted out?
Don Clericuzio wants his family moved away from the daily grind of mob activities and into the business of high-finance, gambling, restaurants and construction. To that end he puts his simple plan into action. He retires from active control himself and signs of the business of his family to his trusted partner, and some other families. Nevertheless he keeps the cream of industry (usury) for his family. The assimilation of his ‘family’ into society is his only remaining ambition. . .
In classic Puzo tradition the story begins with a celebration - the baptism of the Don’s grandson and grand-nephew. Born within weeks of one another Dante Clericuzio and Cross De Lena would grow up as bitter enemies in the shadow of the Mafiosi traditions and they play key roles in the future of the Clericuzio.
Dante grows up in the don’s household as a favourite, but fate had played a little joke on Dante leaving him obtusely short. Nevertheless Dante’s aggressive and wicked nature leaves the Don with no choice but to involve him in the murkier side of business. He is the all-round tough guy - blood-thirsty, cocky, ready-to-kill and thrill-seeking. Cursed with a short stature, he makes up for it in his overly aggressive demeanor. After the official Clericuzio assassin retires Dante dons the mantle to prove his worth as the ‘lord high executioner’ of the family.
Cross grows up in Vegas with his father Joseph ’Pippi” De Lena - the legendary assassin in the service of the Clericuzio who represents the Clericuzio interest in the Xanadu casino. Gronevelt, the other partner and casino-genius takes Cross under his wing exposing the boy to the realities of gambling and business. After being assigned as a Clericuzio assassin himself, Cross independent streak doesn't fit as well with the Don and Cross searches for other avenues after his part in the Clericuzio family is at stake. He branches out to Hollywood and uses ‘skills’ he learnt as a Mafiosi to win over an a-list actress.
The story spans a period of thirty odd years over three cities - New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles showing the involvement of the mob in business, gambling and movies. Puzo’s love for gambling and involvement with Hollywood enables him to delve deep into the workings of both industries.
Don Domenico Clericuzio is present in few scenes but is depicted as a puppet-master of people and situations. He removes his family from the nitty-gritties of crime and pushes the next generation to prosperity, but never at the cost of having to sacrifice control over their lives. The don is a great lover of America and it’s concept of democracy which he admires for its easily manipulated nature.
Early on he had been told the famous maxim of American justice, that it was better that a hundred men go free than that one innocent man be punished. Struck almost dumb by the beauty of the concept, he became an ardent patriot. America was his country. He would never leave America.
In contrast to Vito Corleone, Domenico Clericuzio is a more fortunate in the circumstances he finds himself in. The mafia war in The Last Don is brutally won by the Clericuzio with finality despite a bloodied nose. Nevertheless the long-term effects and battle scars provide the main conflict in the story; and the loss of Clericuzio’s son doesn't affect the family as deeply as the assassination of Sonny affected the Corleone. What is almost missing in The Last Don is the father-son story between the Don and his son, but Puzo has represented that element by narrating the training of Cross De Lena by his father.
By far the most fortunate character in the book is Cross De Lena. He is in perfect proximity to the family to enjoy the benefits of membership and yet exercise more independence; his father’s training in the ways of wise-guy have made him adept at dealing with tough situations; and his closeness to Gronevelt has given him the inside track on running a casino. Despite failing in the eyes of the don, in reality Cross is the protagonist of The Last Don.
The sons of Domenico Clericuzio are marginalized in the story and play minor roles. Puzo is sympathetic to them but more so to Pippi De Lena who proves himself most capable to the don if not the most loved.
The Last Don has more pulp action than the story of The Godfather, making it an easier read specially if you consider The Godfather film trilogy. If we were to compare characters then Sonny Coreone’s short-fuse is manifested in Dante Clericuzio, the legendary reputation of Luca Brazi is resurrected in Joseph ‘Pippi” De Lena, and Moe Greene is replaced by the lovable father-figure that is Alfred Gronevelt. The homely Italian women that we see in The Godfather are out - Hollywood actresses and starlets, Vegas showgirls and ambitious writers add spunk and greater degree of familiarity for readers.
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The don knew that love is not a reliable emotion to matter how deep. Love does not ensure gratitude, does not ensure obedience, does not provide harmony in so difficult a world. No one understood this better than Don Clericuzio.
‘I don’t know that. You don’t know that. Nobody knows that. Where did you get that fuckin’ hat?’
- Cross De Lena
‘I’m not talking about falling in love or indulging in hatred. Those are very bad percentage moves.’
- Alfred Gronevelt
‘What’s past is past. Never go back. Not for excuses. Not for justification, not for happiness. You are what you are, the world is what it is.’
- Alfred Gronevelt
Lia Vazzi watched Cross drive through the gates. For one of the few times in ten years, he was homesick for Sicily. In Sicily men never became so distraught about a woman’s secret. And in Sicily there would never have been all this fuss. Skannet would have been swimming at the bottom of the ocean a long time ago.
It was true that all the great dons of Sicily excelled in patience, but they knew when to stop.
- Lia Vazzi
Skannet’s malicious glee while saying this, his massive torso, would have frightened Pollard before, but now that Cross was involved it only evoked pity.
‘We hope someday to be saints, but not martyrs.’
- Don Domenico Clericuzio
There is nothing so terrible as to condemn a beautiful woman. Cross knew that if he answered her truthfully, he would lose her forever.