August 12, 1996 12:00 PM

by Mario Puzo

With 1969’s The Godfather, the boss of all Mafia scribes took crime writing to operatic levels. He still sings the Sicilian arias of blood and brotherhood like no one else, and in this faultless and funny epic he adds a pinch of Gilbert & Sullivan for a change of pace. Lurking beneath the rubouts, skims (from casinos) and beak-wetting (payoffs) are some perfectly observed, hilarious subplots.

The main tale turns on the determination of aging Mafia don Domenico Clericuzio to get his family out of drug peddling and other high-risk scams so that they can disappear into legitimate society—the movie biz and legalized gambling. But his master plan is jolted by his bloodthirsty grandson Dante and gambling mastermind Cross De Lena, who plot and parry at the family’s luxury Las Vegas hotel-casino. Meanwhile, Puzo (who cowrote the screenplays for all three Godfather films with Francis Ford Coppola and cowrote the first two Superman movies, among other films) skewers the machinations of studio executives, the twittery egos of “bankable stars” and the career consequences of “below the line” affairs (with grips, stuntmen and women, and others lacking major screen credits).

And then there’s Ernest Vail, a gifted writer but failed Hollywood operator who wrote a highly profitable series of films but hasn’t gotten a penny in promised percentages. The reason: His contract calls for net points. (Studio accounting makes sure that the picture shows no profit after expenses are deducted.) But Vail discovers that if he dies, his family is entitled to a piece of the gross, where the big bucks lurk. His solution is a classic example of Hollywood dealing: Vail threatens to commit suicide if the studio doesn’t come through with a sizable chunk of cash.

You should not be surprised that Don will not be coming soon to a multiplex near you (although it will be adapted for a CBS miniseries). Still, Puzo offers his readers another story they can’t refuse. (Random House, $25.95)

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