Mario Puzo-- Italian-American pulp novelist, 1920-1999.
Mario Puzo was born in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan, into a poor Italian family. He joined the Air Force at the start of World War II, and stayed on in an administrative position until after the publication of his first novel. Puzo's first novel, The Dark Arena (1955), dealt with the experiences of an embittered ex-GI living in Germany. His second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), was an Italian immigrant novel set in Hell's Kitchen. Both received good critical notices, but sold poorly.
Rather than continue as a starving artist, Puzo wrote The Godfather (1969) in a much more commercial vein. Puzo re-worked the themes of his second novel to focus entirely on the Mafia, added 23 murders and created a monster best-seller. The book spawned two movies, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974), directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Puzo co-wrote both screenplays, and used that experience for his fourth novel, Fools Die (1978).
The Godfather, however, was the pinnacle of Puzo's achievements. His novel was commercial without sacrificing any of his artistic goals, and has achieved a near-mythical status. While the Coppola films may have had quite a lot to do with this, Puzo's book holds up very well against the filmed version. Which is better? I don't know. They're both damned good. Reading the novel first is an interesting experience, because the reader forms an impression of Don Corleone that does not really resemble an aged and bloated Marlon Brando. The Puzo book contains the entire first movie, and about half of the sequel. There are also a few subplots that Coppola couldn't fit into either movie, most notably the one concerning thinly-veiled Frank Sinatra clone Johnny Fontane.
Puzo followed up The Godfather with Fools Die, a tale of a naive young novelist adrift in Hollywood, being sucked into drugs, gambling, and sex. This was the last of his novels to really qualify as any kind of artistic achievement. Like the Godfather, it is a sprawling epic, though it doesn't work nearly as well. Puzo still had a few memorable characters up his sleeve for this one.
The lack of memorable characters began to plague Puzo by his fifth novel, The Sicilian (1984). An addendum of sorts to the Sicilian interlude in The Godfather, it features Michael Corleone as a supporting character,while focusing on the exploits of a young Sicilian bandit named Salvatore Giuliano.
Puzo's sixth novel, The Fourth K (1991) was a lackluster thriller about a presidential assassination (the fourth "k" refers to the fourth Kennedy), that probably only sold well to people needing something to read on airplanes.
His seventh novel, The Last Don (1996), was another Mafia novel very similar to the Godfather in everything except for quality. Once again, it's a novel of dynastic succession in a Mafia family, but without such compelling characters as Don Corleone, Santino Corleone, or Luca Brasi. It was made into a TV miniseries that wasn't worth much either.
An eighth novel, Omerta (2000), came out after Puzo's death. He was also working on a novel about the Borgia family, which was completed by other hands, and published in 2001.