The Fortunate Pilgrim, by Mario Puzo
This is the second book written by Mario Puzo. Puzo was working to be a literary writer at the time. He said he was disappointed that he still had to work full time after his first book and then, after this book, had to work two jobs. Somehow The Fortunate Pilgrim managed to leave him in worse financial straits than he was in before its publication. In the book there are sequences in which an older brother of the narrator is hired by a local gangster to collect “dues” from local merchants. His publishers suggested that if he was to build on that idea he might have a more successful book. Thus The Godfather was written.
Puzo said this book changed during its writing. He had started out wanting to write about a brilliant young writer in an Italian family who is never fully appreciated. While some of that feeling still breaks through in the book, the true focus becomes the mother of an Italian family. She leaves her native Sicily for America to marry a man she had never met. That man died on the job, leaving her a widow with children. A second marriage to a long-time bachelor leaves her in a loveless marriage and provides a loveless father to her children. Eventually his insanity leaves her as a single mother a second time.
The book follows this family through deaths and marriages, watching the mother raise a family in inner-city poverty until, after the children are grown, she is able to leave the poor neighborhood for a more comfortable life.
The love and respect Puzo has for the mother comes through clearly, and he said that her protective instincts became part of the model for Don Corleone in The Godfather.
The Puzo/narrator character comes across as an unloved child, as Puzo outlined in his original concept for the novel. It’s a lighter theme in the book, however. What does come through is a vital Italian family that survives several crises without losing its unity and underlying affection for each other. This is sometimes expressed in swats, curses, yelling, and motherly manipulation but the affection is there all the same.
The book has its weaknesses, and I think those who encouraged him to put a different focus in his work had the right idea. The Godfather, particularly the films, had an influence on culture for good or bad in far more powerful ways than this book ever would have. Both books are rich in characters and are tributes to family survival. Placing that family into a world of crime and Shakespearean intrigue gave the story a vitality that this book never reaches. Still, it’s an interesting book for what it is, a photo of that culture in that time. For fans of Puzo’s later works it also sets an atmosphere for those books and gives a peek at Puzo’s writing in a different context.