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The final chapter of the old Mafia

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 2000


Before he died one year ago this month, Mario Puzo had completed his final saga of the Mafia and those whose lives swirl around its passion, corruption, violence and conspiracy. Omerta, the Mafia's code of silence, lends its name to Puzo's last story. It is perfectly fitting, for the word engenders the loyalty and the fervor of those who uphold the code and the swift and merciless destruction of those who don't. Only the faithful survive this tale.

As a small child, Astorre Viola was left by his dying Mafia don father to the care of a colleague, Don Raymonde Aprile, who welcomed the child as a nephew into his life and the lives of his two sons and his daughter. As the years passed, Don Raymonde saw in the boy what he saw in none of his natural children -- the strength, will and intelligence to take care of the Aprile family, its lives and its fortunes, after he was gone.

Don Raymonde's departure is hastened by an unknown enemy, and Astorre, who trained in Sicily and England to become the heir, steps up. The rest of the family, who know Astorre only as a macaroni wholesaler and a fop with a passion for horses and red riding jackets, watch in amazement as he is transformed into a modern Mafioso, plotting ruthlessly but with character-saving compassion to protect his family and the billion-dollar banking business Don Raymonde left as his estate.

The great don's sons and daughter want to sell the banks to rival Mafiosi, who want to acquire the clean banking chain as a means to launder money and, in one of the story's more far-fetched ideas, to underwrite one man's passion to own a nuclear weapon. But Astorre promised Don Raymonde he would never sell the banks, and his is the final word. Defending the estate from murderous rivals and tracking down and punishing those responsible for Don Raymonde's assassination give Omerta all the violence it needs.

But more is created by the addition of two interesting characters. One is an Amazon-like, black-skinned, green-eyed female New York City police official as corrupt and violent as any criminal she pursues. At times, she is almost cartoonish, as when she tries to stand down an entire warehouse full of killers with only a handgun (she has, for some inexplicable reason, discarded the assault rifle she carried in with her). The more richly textured character is a top FBI official who stands on the edge of corruption, making trade-offs for his concept of the greater good. He is as nicely ambivalent a character as I've seen in a long time.

Omerta is a wonderful dramatization of the end of the old Mafia. In the story, as in reality, the larger-than-life dons are mostly gone, replaced by a very different breed, who aren't necessarily better -- or worse, as the case might be -- just not so grand.

Omerta will never rank with The Godfather, but that was a different story about a different time. Puzo's finale, it is a grand read in a great storytelling voice.

Jean Heller is the author of the mystery-thrillers, Handyman and Maximum Impact.

OMERTA

By Mario Puzo

Random House, $25.95

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