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Chris Messenger. The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones Became "Our Gang." Albany: State U of New York P, 2002. vii + 344 pp.
In The Godfather and American Culture, Chris Messenger places Mario Puzo's novel within a general literary and cultural analysis of popular narrative. The book is organized in three parts, with nine chapters.
In chapter 1, Messenger analyzes both the subject matter of popular fiction and the idea of literary "taste." He seems anxious [End Page 861] about the limited theoretical choices he has from which to position his ideas about popular culture. Messenger believes there are but two kinds of popular culture studies, "Anglo-American" and "British." He sees the former as "egalitarian and generally not theoretically based" and the latter as Marxist, grounded in "revealing multiple false consciousnesses in a variety of rhetorics." As a self-proclaimed "liberal pluralist," Messenger wants membership in neither of the two reigning camps. Yet Messenger seems unaware of Australian cultural critics, like John Fiske, Robert Hodge, Gunther Kress, and Meaghan Morris, who already mix their popular culture analysis with high theory. So, instead, he adopts Marxist Fredric Jameson's pop culture theories, since such ideas "comprise the fullest response to thinking through the field of fictional meanings" and because Jameson's work allows the critic to "grasp the Utopian appeal of best sellers." While summarizing and wrangling with the ideas of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Pierre Bourdieu, and Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, Messenger ultimately defines literary taste by adopting none of these critics' rationalizing: "no simple straightforward meaning of taste will ever be granted authority by critical method." Ultimately, Messenger's chapter on theory may be a bit too long and dense for the final theoretical stance on taste and critical analyses that he adopts.
The central part of the book emphasizes literary criticism and careful reading. Despite his fear that he might be "slumming it" or, in Puzo's phrase, "going bad" by analyzing this dubious gangster book from popular culture, Messenger shows us how much he knows about Puzo and how well he has read The Godfather and the rest of Puzo's canon. Chapter 2 is an overview of the life of Puzo as a post-World War II author with aspirations toward writing high art. Messenger deems Puzo's novel The Fortunate Pilgrim to be his best book, labeling it a quality ethnic novel that should be compared to Henry Roth's Call It Sleep. This chapter successfully psychoanalyzes Puzo's artistic intent through biographical and aesthetic analysis. Yet Messenger sees Puzo as a "failed elite author" for whom authors such as Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, and Norman Mailer served as influences and competition.
Chapters 3 through 5 provide various ways by which a literary critic might read Puzo. Messenger begins with an overview of Mikhail Bakhtin's major theories, embracing Bakhtin's pluralizing dialogic criticism, but also becoming frustrated with Puzo's reliance on "authoritarian and monologic" structures in The Godfather. Chapter 4, perhaps the strongest of the group, shows readers how to use "ethnic semiosis" to read The Godfather. In this chapter, Messenger moves beyond formalism in order to explicate two key terms. First, he defines bella figura as "the attention to form of presentation governing [End Page 862] social situations and the code that expresses an individual's public utterance and social script." Second, Messenger reveals how omerta, the dramatic use of silence, permeates The Godfather as well as both Don and Michael Corleone's authority. Messenger persuasively argues that knowledge of such terms protects the nonethnic reading community from misreading the novel. In chapter 5, Messenger delineates a semiotic and narratological approach, borrowing from Roland Barthes's work in Mythologies and S/Z, to demonstrate how Puzo uses sign systems to represent the Corleone's "power and authority." Messenger proves his wit by weaving symbolic connections among the Corleone men, Jack Woltz, Luca Brasi, as well as between various female characters in the novel and even Khartoum...