The three bestsellers of 1969 that retain the most value for 2017 readers each deal in very different ways with family relationships: The Godfather by Mario Puzo, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, and The Promise by Chaim Potok.
The Godfather is first a father.
I suspect The Godfather is known as a Mafia thriller because more people saw the film than read the novel.
There’s certainly enough blood and gore in the book to make an emergency room crew feel at home, but the deeper stories of family, culture, and crime-as-a-business are more important.
Don Vito Corleone is getting old. He can’t delay much longer selecting a new CEO of the family’s gambling and extortion businesses.
Mike, his youngest son, has the best temperament for the job. Unlike the eldest son, Mike is levelheaded, and unlike the second son, he has proven leadership skills. Mike also has a proven record of killing when required: Mike is a war hero.
The problem is that Mike got his war-hero status by defying his father and enlisting in the Marine Corps. Home from the war, he chose to attend an Ivy League college, where he’s fallen in love with a rich daddy’s girl with impeccable WASP credentials.
The novel traces Mike’s journey from rebellious son to his father’s successor as godfather. Becoming a mob boss was never Mike’s wish, but his upbringing and personality make it inevitable.
Along the way, readers learn about the European Mafia operated for centuries as an elaborate system of interpersonal favors before becoming an international business operation in the twentieth century.
Compared to The Godfather, The Promise may seem tame, but it deals with incidents that, although bloodless, are emotionally lethal.
The story, like Potok’s earlier bestseller The Chosen, focuses on Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders, two brainy Jewish boys whose fathers are each rabbis.
Reuven, who has always had a close relationship with his father, is studying to become a rabbi himself. Danny, whose relationship with his father was emotionally distant, has rejected the rabbinical life and is a doctoral student in psychology.
The relationship between the two friends becomes strained when Danny recommends a radical treatment of a disturbed young boy to whose family Reuven introduced him.
Reuven finds Danny’s isolation treatment, so reminiscent of Danny’s own upbringing, as appalling as he had earlier found Rabbi Saunders’ refusal to interact with Danny.
Reuven also finds himself out of sympathy with his own father, an unfamiliar and upsetting experience.
Like the Godfather, The Promise places twentieth century characters in situations firmly rooted in centuries-old culture. They all have to figure out how to fit their heritage and their ideals into a world they are reluctant to belong.
Portnoy’s Complaint: Too much family
Portnoy’s Complaint is related by Alexander Portnoy to his psychiatrist.
Alex has no end of problems, all of which he blames on his parents. Had they never had him, he would have been fine.
Even with his psychiatrist, Alex attempts to disguise the extent of his misery under a barrage of wisecracks.
Alex is so funny, it’s hard to imagine even a psychiatrist failing to laugh at his jokes.
But it doesn’t take a shrink to see that Alex is a seriously damaged individual—and his parents probably had a big role in that.
The question is whether Alex has enough willpower to try acting differently than he learned to do as a child.
© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni