Rewriting the Mafioso: The Gangster Hero in the Work of Puzo, Coppola, and Rimanelli
During the early to mid-1900s, an infatuation with the “gangster” grew in American popular culture. In response to historical events of the early twentieth century that polarized the United States class system, especially the Great Depression, those in the growing lower class became fascinated with actual and fictional figures that could demonstrate the ability to live “in-between;” that is, anyone who did not benefit from corporate capitalism but, rather, from standing on the dangerous middle ground between the classes, challenging economic, ethnic, and even legal boundaries. Both fictional and nonfictional figures of the “gangster” arose in American media in the form of a hyper-masculine character who could transform his humble origins into a luxurious life by committing brilliantly brutal crimes with bravado. As the gangster became more established over the course of the following decades and expanded in popularity beyond the original working-class audience, the gangster also became a nostalgic figure who offered a sense of tradition, which in part accounts for the gangster’s continuing popularity in modern media. As the first chapter explains, due to the association of southern Italian immigrants with crime and patriarchy in the United States, gangster and mafia fiction most largely concern southern Italians and Italian- Americans. Since its inception, the Italian-American gangster hero, or the “Mafioso,” has commanded a strong following among American audiences. Due to the saliency of the Mafioso figure and the widespread influence of the genre, both the figure and the narrative merit critical discussion and analysis. The first chapter of the following article outlines the ways in which traditional mafia fiction, epitomized by Puzo and Coppola’s sensational The Godfather, extrapolates from historical phenomena, like the hyphenate individual, with the tools of genre fiction in order to craft the classical Mafioso. The chapter considers the reliance of the Mafioso on such elements as bella figura and omertà, as well as socio-cultural norms assigned to Italian-Americans in the media, and considers the characteristics of the Mafioso by examining the character system present in The Godfather. In outlining the evolution of the Mafioso character, the first chapter explores what it means for the character of the gangster hero to perpetuate the values that once popularized it. In response, the second chapter provides a close reading of the work of parodist and multi-genre writer Giose Rimanelli, who takes bold and innovative steps in questioning the mafia narrative in his novel Benedetta in Guysterland. Rimanelli, a writer undoubtedly more focused on high-literary intertextuality than a genre writer, includes characters branded by the same traditional elements of The Godfather’s Mafioso but, instead of aggrandizing the Mafioso in the traditional fashion, utilizes these elements to question the foundation upon which classical mafia fiction relies. The chapter explicates Rimanelli’s clever use of referential language, unique narrative structure, and complex characters in order to analyze the ways in which Rimanelli demonstrates the potential for Italian-American literature to evolve. The chapter discusses Rimanelli’s recognition and distortion of mafia fiction tropes, scrutinizing key characters, and ultimately assays the potential for expansion in the mafia fiction genre. By providing a close reading of two texts, related in content but highly divergent in their method and objective, this article juxtaposes the historical Mafioso against his reexamined counterpart. Through an analysis of the history and canonical figuration of the gangster hero in The Godfather, and an examination of Rimanelli’s extensive reworking, the following two chapters call readers to recognize the historical context in which the Mafioso formed and rethink the literary outcomes of reinventing the tradition of both the character and the narrative.