Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes, and the Corleones, while not resting in a watery grave, are gone as well -- Sonny, the Don and his wife, even Michael and his daughter. But you can't keep a good Godfather down, any more than you can kill off Sherlock Holmes or Dracula.
The Corleones still haunt our imaginations, and the beleaguered publishing industry knows it's easier selling a name brand than an unknown. So welcome back, Fredo and Tom, Clemenza and Barzini, and particularly you, Luca Brasi, with your 15 minutes of fame as one of the central characters in "The Family Corleone." Billed as a prequel to Mario Puzo's "The Godfather," the novel takes place before most of the events of the original book. The writer is Ed Falco, here novelizing a Puzo screenplay that was originally conceived as half of "The Godfather Part III." (The book prompted a nasty legal battle between Paramount and the Puzo estate over copyright and trademark concerns.)
Sonny is 17, Michael 13 and Vito 41 as the book opens in 1933. Tom Hagen is a student at New York University who tempts fate by sleeping with Brasi's mistress. And as the Italian families prepare to square off against one another, they face another threat -- the Irish, who want control of their own mean streets. Which does not stop Sonny from befriending one young Irish fellow and having an even closer, clandestine friendship with his sister.
Most of this fits with Puzo's original novel and director Francis Ford Coppola's first two films. A couple of major incidents in the new book don't quite square with Puzo's screenplay, but that's nothing to be concerned about. It's an entertaining back story to the main event, including how Brasi came to talk so haltingly, and Falco does justice to each of the characters.
The author -- uncle to actress Edie Falco -- is a better writer than Mark Winegardner, who also wrote a couple of books based on the "Godfather" characters. Falco honors Puzo's straightforward writing style without becoming as boring and unrhythmic as Winegardner.
The difference between "The Godfather" and "The Family Corleone," though, is the difference between art and commerce. Puzo and Coppola were channeling something poetic in the book and the two films, focusing on the Don's own quasi-religious belief in making the best of the world God gave us and Michael's more capitalistic, button-down approach to making one's way. In Shakespearean terms, the Don is Henry IV, Michael Henry V and Sonny Hotspur.
Falco has no such artistic ambitions, and how could he, given the perfection of the book and first two films, which make everything else superfluous, including "The Godfather Part III"? That said, Falco spins a good yarn, even if the violence is more grotesque than in Puzo. "The Family Corleone" is not a gourmet meal, but sometimes spaghetti and meatballs can be pretty tasty.