Mario Puzo’s first mafia epic The Godfather traced the journey of the Corleone from a respected into legitimate 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.
In The Last Don Mario Puzo asks . . . What if?
What if the crime family had assimilated into society?
What if the Don lived long enough?
What if the succeeding generation didn't have the Mafiosi genes?
If the Clericuzio Family was the Holy Church for the US Mafia, then the head of the family, Don Domenico Clericuzio was the Pope, admired for his intelligence and strength.
After successfully concluding a bloody war with the Santadio family - 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 and signs off the business to his partners, keeping a healthy cut of their profits for himself. All that remains for him is the assimilation of his family into society.
In 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 grow up as bitter enemies fighting a civil war in the shadow of the Mafiosi traditions. The Last Don spans a period of thirty odd years over three cities - New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles showing the evolution of organised crime in commerce, gambling and entertainment. Puzo’s love for gambling and involvement with Hollywood comes through in his writing.
Dante Clericuzio grows up in the don’s household as a favourite; he is short, aggressive and wicked leaving 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. After the previous Clericuzio assassin retires Dante dons the mantle to prove his worth as the executioner for the family.
Cross grows up in Vegas with his exiled father Joseph ’Pippi” De Lena. Pippi was an assassin in the service of the Clericuzio and now represents the Clericuzio interest in the Xanadu casino. Gronevelt, the Clericuzio's partner in the Xanadu, takes Cross under his wing. After resigning as the assassin for the Clericuzio on account of an independent streak, Cross branches out to Hollywood and manages to win over an a-list actress. Cross De Lena is the most fortunate character in the book, based in Las Vegas with ideal proximity to the family in NY and their expanding presence in LA. He brings money and tough guy credentials to Hollywood, and makes the most of the learning curve in the movie business.
Don Domenico Clericuzio appears only when required, preferring to pull the strings from behind the scenes. Domenico Clericuzio is a more fortunate than Vito Corleone and wins his mafia war with just a bloodied nose. The long term effects of war and battle scars underscore the conflict. Like The Godfather the father-son relation is illustrated between Pippi De Lena and Cross.
The Last Don has many parallels to The Godfather but is a more relaxed, less intense read. Don Domenico lives long enough to see his family through, and going legit turns out to be a given. Unlike The Godfather there is no struggle over the process of going straight; consequently Don Clericuzio is less endearing and more distant than Don Corleone. The Godfather is about the inner working of a crime family. The Last Don is about the workings of Vegas casinos and the movie business in LA. Weaving through the story is the continuing saga of the Clericuzio's bloody war against the Santadio that didn't really go away.
Its full of misadventure at the crossroads of crime, casinos and movies with former mafiosi carving their own path away from organised crime. But the old life isn't easy to give up and nature is tough to change, and these provide fodder for the legends that make up the book. The Last Don has its own Moe Greene in the form of father-figure like Alfred Gronevelt, but the homely women of The Godfather are replaced by Hollywood actresses and starlets, Vegas showgirls and ambitious writers. Crucially - In The Godfather the family is quickly enveloped in crises and there is a sense of urgency; whereas in The Last Don Don Clericuzio is more fortunate, or more adept at handling his peers and the family's existence is never threatened, except from within.