TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – When Mark Winegardner (search) was 12, he read Mario Puzo's (search) "The Godfather" (search) — a novel that was supposedly off limits to him. The local library felt books with a lot of sex and violence might leave too much of an impression on a young reader. In his case, it did.
Thirty years later, Winegardner retells the story of the Corleone family in a sequel, "The Godfather Returns." (search) Puzo was not interested in writing a sequel to his masterpiece, which has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
"Mario knew that 'The Godfather' was his legacy and he didn't want to touch it again because he knew he couldn't top it," said Jonathan Karp, Random House's editorial director. "He did tell me that after he died, we could do whatever we wanted because he wouldn't be around.
"We wanted a fresh generational voice to take the Corleones into a new era."
Many writers would be intimidated at taking on such pop culture icons as the Corleones and their mob buddies. But Winegardner was thrilled. "My one and only motivation was to write a good book," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The Godfather Returns," winner of a nationwide contest organized by Random House, Inc., and the Puzo estate, went on sale Tuesday with a first printing of 350,000. Signet plans to release a half million more paperback copies of the original in anticipation of Winegardner's 430-page sequel, Karp said.
While researching his book, Winegardner was excited to discover some powerful, unanswered mysteries in the original story: Michael Corleone's desire to legitimize his family and unresolved characters such as Fredo and Tom Hagen.
"Michael's desire to make the family legitimate — that's the thing that drives that character," Winegardner said.
In the new novel, Michael ignores an understanding with the Chicago mob and moves his family's interests westward to take control of Lake Tahoe, where he believes the family can someday become legitimate.
Winegardner expands the roles of Michael's hapless older brother, Fredo, and half brother Tom Hagen as well as crooner Johnny Fontane, the character who resembles Frank Sinatra.
Fredo is depicted far more sympathetically than in the original. Hagen, the family's lawyer and consigliere, starts a political career in the book that also features an East Coast family that closely resembles the Kennedys. Fontane enjoys new success as a recording artist while entertaining politicians and keeping his relationship with mob figures.
"Fredo's betrayal of Michael makes no sense upon further scrutiny," said Winegardner, who is of Irish-German descent like Tom Hagen. "We see no evidence of that until we're told about it after the fact.
"Hagen's relationship with the family is utterly unresolved. You see Hagen start to get frustrated with this in (the movie) 'Godfather II,' but it goes nowhere. Sooner or later, that just has to come to a head."
The book tries to fill in the missing parts between the end of "The Godfather" and Francis Ford Coppola's movie sequels.
The author introduces some new characters, most notably Nick Geraci, a well-educated former boxer. Slated to die in a plane crash engineered by Michael, Geraci instead survives and becomes a rival and major character in the book.
Winegardner fills his version with plenty of violence, graphic sex and adult language.
In the new sequel, the Corleone family begins to spread out as do its mob interests. Winegardner touches on new spots such as Rattlesnake Island in Lake Erie near Cleveland (where he once wrote sports columns), Detroit, Chicago and several Florida sunspots, including his Tallahassee base and Florida State University, where he teaches creative writing.
Winegardner, who has written about baseball, Cleveland and organized crime and has published nine earlier novels, was named winner in February of a contest that attracted more than 100 proposals to continue the saga of the fictional crime family.
Puzo's "The Godfather" led to a pair of classic American films that collected nine Academy Awards. Puzo, who collaborated on the screenplays, won two Oscars. A third "Godfather" movie never lived up to the first two installments.
Karp, who spent 10 years working with Puzo before his death in 1999, believes Puzo would be pleased with the sequel.
"I think Mario would have been happy to know that his characters are living on and being reinvented and still at the heart of our culture," Karp said.
Puzo's estate will share in the royalties. "The thing Mario cared most about was providing for his family," Karp said. "And this book is going to provide very nicely for his family.
Early reviews, however, have been mixed.
"The book isn't perfect — just nearly so," said Publishers Weekly, which forecasts a major best seller. "Let it be known that Winegardner, for his respect to the novel's antecedents and for his accomplishment, shall henceforth be known as a man on honor." But The Associated Press said the book "should sleep with the fishes," and urged that "the Corleones, the first family of American mob fiction, finally rest in peace."
Winegardner, meanwhile, has launched a 10-day book tour that began Tuesday in New York with TV appearances.
"Weirdly, the book tour will be much less extensive than any other I've ever been on because it's all media," he said. "I've paid my dues reading over the roar of a cappuccino machine in a bookstore at a reading attended by seven people, three of whom work for the store."
He hopes today's readers are as curious about what goes on in a mobster's life as he was decades ago when he borrowed "The Godfather" from the public library in Bryan, Ohio.
His editor believes they will be.
"On some level we are all Don Corleone," Karp said. "That is what Mario Puzo tapped into so brilliantly."