On its own merits, Fools Die never would have been a best-seller. Critics feasted upon the debilitating flaws in Mario Puzo's awkward, indecisive 1978 Las Vegas/New York/Hollywood story, exposing numerous weaknesses throughout the 572 pages. Yet, despite the overwhelmingly negative response from the literary world's most discerning minds, Fools Die was a regular fixture among the top five best-selling hardcover fiction novels for a six-month period, selling an estimated 2.75 million copies between 1978 and 1979. The ample reasons critics provided to make Fools Die a failure were readily countered by the only factor necessary to make the book a bestseller: the phenomenon Puzo had unleashed upon the world nearly a decade before, The Godfather (1969). However, while The Godfather was the chief factor behind the enviable sales figures that Fools Die achieved, it was because of the inevitable comparison between Puzo's 1978 gambling novel and his career-defining Mafia epic that Fools Die was received so poorly by critics and ultimately came to be regarded as a failure.
Puzo was forced to write The Godfather out of dire need; in debt $20,000 to friends and relatives, he abandoned the artistic idealism with which he had written his first two novels for a $5,000 cash advance and a simpler style more pleasing to the mainstream reader. The tremendous popularity of the resulting novel exceeded not only Puzo's expectations, but even his wildest dreams. By the late 1970s, the name Mario Puzo was synonymous with the triumphs that his creation had enjoyed; after selling over 12 million copies of the novel and writing the screenplays for two hugely successful Godfather motion pictures, Puzo could name his price at any publishing house in the world. On the sheer strength of his previous literary accomplishment, Puzo was able to guarantee that Fools Die would enjoy a spot on the best-seller list. However, even The Godfather could not guarantee critical acclaim. While an exorbitant publishing deal fed a media frenzy eager for a second coming of The Godfather, it was those same excessively lofty expectations that lay the foundation for a merciless reception.
In 1978, New American Library bid a then-record $2.2 million for the paperback rights to Fools Die, easily surpassing the $1.9 million Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds had garnered from Harper & Rowe the previous year. While this deal seemed excessive for one novel, in actuality, New American Library was buying two of Puzo's works. Such a lucrative offer can only be attributed to the fact that the publishing company was banking upon the past success of Puzo's proven page-turner to sell his latest novel; New American Library was anticipating either a work of the same stature as The Godfather, or, in the likely event that Fools Die failed to live up to its predecessor's popularity, that future sales of Puzo's best-known novel would entice readers to purchase his latest effort as well. In fact, as part of the deal, New American Library paid $350,000 in exchange for future reprinting rights to The Godfather. Puzo's record-breaking publishing deal officially linked the fate of Fools Die with that of his Mafia novel. It was the incredible past and projected future sales figures of The Godfather that secured such a lucrative publishing agreement for Fools Die, and the magnitude of this deal was the catalyst that propelled Fools Die into the spotlight and onto the bestseller list.
Thanks to the publicity resulting from such a gaudy publishing deal, New American Library would eventually make a great profit from signing Mario Puzo. The immediate dividends of the deal were fully realized by G.P. Putnam's Sons, the distributor of the hardcover version of Fools Die. Extensive media scrutiny of the book commenced in early July, a full two months before the novel's release date, and continued steadily over the course of the next five months. Dozens of major newspapers, magazines, and literary journals devoted coverage to at least one aspect of the novel, whether it was the publishing deal, Puzo, or the novel itself. Several magazines and journals even featured Puzo on their covers. In response to the incredible media attention, G.P. Putnam's Sons sent Fools Die back to the press twice, raising the total number of copies available at the release date to a formidable 250,000.
This constant media attention certainly contributed to the novel's steady sales rate. Continuous press coverage kept Fools Die in the forefront of America's consciousness, and enabled the novel to retain its top-five hardcover fiction bestseller status for months. However, not all of this coverage was supportive of Puzo's latest effort. Readers expecting another Godfather-caliber story were sorely disappointed with Fools Die's disjointed, frustrating storylines and distant, poorly developed characters. The eager anticipation for the novel that characterized early accounts of the publishing deal quickly turned into critical disdain and pointed personal attacks upon Puzo following the novel's release.
Without exception, critics viewed Fools Die as a great disappointment, paling in comparison to the book that had been chiefly responsible for generating such an incredible amount of publicity. In contemporary reviews, neither Fools Die nor The Godfather were regarded as classics or works of art in any sense of the terms, but whereas critics heaped praise upon Puzo's earlier effort, they could find only fault with Fools Die. Where Puzo was lauded in 1969 as "an extremely talented storyteller," and praised for being able to keep The Godfather moving "at breakneck speed without ever losing its balance," he was chided nine years later for splitting "his narration; [and allowing] his story to be so often interrupted by flashback and tangentially related tales." Critics universally rebuked Puzo for Fools Die's lethargic pace, seemingly unrelated, drawn-out subplots, poor character development, and lack of direction, labeling the book as "a hodgepodge . . . a lump . . . an unfinished, undisciplined, disorganized . . . clarion call for the return of the editor, any editor."
A common complaint among reviewers was the lack of a connection between the reader and Fools Die's characters, especially noticeable considering the strength of the relationship between the reader and The Godfather's Mafioso protagonist, Don Corleone. Many critics believed that the chasm between reader and character was a result of Puzo's conscious efforts to craft Fools Die into an autobiographical tale, with Puzo narrating as the cool-headed writer John Merlyn. Although Puzo always denied any such connection, he did concede that readers "could say that every book I've written, including The Godfather, is semiautobiographical."
While Fools Die may not have been intended as an autobiographical story, Merlyn was clearly modeled after Puzo, just as Merlyn's mentor, the brilliant womanizer novelist Osano was a "ham-handed, sophomoric caricature of Norman Mailer," the prominent American recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, the same year The Godfather was published. The similarities between Merlyn and Puzo were too numerous to fully identify and too obvious to ignore. Merlyn refused to alter a grim ending to one of his novels, despite his publisher's fears that readers wouldn't be able to identify with a kidnapper protagonist. Early in his career, Puzo once forfeited a publishing deal because he refused to alter a book's ending, and after the success of The Godfather, admitted that he was "awfully surprised when people loved [Don Corleone] so much," considering the heinous crimes the Godfather committed. Like Merlyn, Puzo went into debt rather than compromise his artistic integrity by writing a crowd-pleasing novel. Both authors firmly believed that writing was a magical, inspired art form that could not be rushed, although Puzo allowed Merlyn to retain his preferred style when creating his groundbreaking novel, while Puzo always claimed that he "wrote below [his] gifts" when penning The Godfather.
Puzo may have overstepped his bounds by using Merlyn's poignant observations as a vehicle for his personal viewpoints. Throughout the course of the novel, Merlyn offered Puzo's (negative) opinion of the publishing and movie industries, and made his creator's disdain for critics and sellout, profit-seeking authors clear. The fact that Merlyn fancied himself a better writer than the great Osano may even have reflected Puzo's vain personal comparison between himself and Mailer. Critics viewed Merlyn's pretentious commentaries as nothing more than a juvenile attempt by Puzo to disassociate himself from the common perception of a bestseller author, and retaliated in their reviews, dismissing Fools Die as a manifestation of Puzo's jealousy of "the high-handed literary big shots who . . . denied him the stature of an artist." In his mind, Puzo still viewed himself as the consummate artist who once suffered for his convictions, and was mortified that he would forever be categorized as a "millionaire schlockmeister" because The Godfather had been crafted with the conscious desire to appeal to a mass audience. And so, once again The Godfather bore great influence upon the success of Fools Die; in his attempt to distance himself from the style that brought him fame, reviewers felt that Puzo tainted Merlyn's character, and invited an unfavorable critical reception.
Much of the criticism heaped upon Fools Die was justified, but several reviewers were excessively malicious towards the book and overly critical of Puzo as well. Members of the writing community were appalled by (and somewhat envious of) the magnitude of the deal for the paperback publishing rights to Fools Die and the tidal wave of publicity it unleashed, and allowed this disgust to warp their objectivity and shape their columns into personal vendettas against Puzo. As scathing review after scathing review appeared in influential publications, each more caustic than the last, it became apparent that more was being critiqued than an unpopular nonfiction work. Critics dismissed Fools Die as "a publishing event rather than a novel," and challenged Puzo's widely-accepted status as a master storyteller, calling the book "the product of an empty brain, and empty heart, and an empty soul." Such criticism trampled the boundary of literary analysis and more closely resembled libel, yet many reviews featured similar assaults upon Puzo's stature. Frequently, it seemed as if the writer had read Fools Die with the sole intention of finding fault, predisposed to detest the book so that he might reinforce the opinions of his peers.
Even by bestseller standards, Fools Die was no masterpiece, but from its steady sales pattern, it was apparent that the book possessed redeeming qualities overlooked by the literary aristocracy. Despite the steady flow of negative press, the book was a consistently high-ranking bestseller for the better part of six months. Doubtlessly much of the interest in Fools Die could be attributed to the desire to sample the latest work by the author of The Godfather, even if the audience was anticipating a mediocre read. And although nearly all of the press that Fools Die received was designed to detract potential book purchasers, the steady stream of media coverage spawned public awareness that no advertising campaign could match. However, it is likely that some readers required more incentive to purchase the novel.
A fraction of Fools Die's success can be attributed to the subject nature of the book. A novel about a high-stakes subject like gambling set in flashy locations such as Las Vegas, Hollywood, and New York City doubtlessly held great appeal for a nation subdued by a tiresome decade of poor economic performance, scandals, and war. The great popularity of escapist literature was evident from the novels accompanying Fools Die atop the bestseller charts. Sydney Sheldon's Bloodlines was a sex-obsessed story featuring "beautiful, thin, tan, rich, witty and aggressive" characters, and Judith Krantz's Scruples was a tale of "sex, wealth, beauty and power," featuring a heroine who rose from Boston poverty to become wealthy and successful as a trendy Beverly Hills boutique owner married to a movie producer. For a reader content only to browse the back of the dust jacket before making a purchase, Fools Die must have seemed every bit the glamorous, escapist novel that the pre-release press had built it up to be, promising an insider's view of Las Vegas where fortunes and lives could change in the blink of an eye. One aspect of Fools Die that reviewers grudgingly praised was "Puzo's description of Las Vegas," and the way in which "its Strip, showgirls, characters, and the variety of ways one can lose money swiftly and painlessly, [was] carried off with brio." While most of Fools Die's success resulted from the great anticipation surrounding the latest effort from the author of The Godfather, certainly a small percentage of sales resulted from those who sought refuge from the decade-long malaise.
As much as it pained him to admit, Puzo was well aware that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to top the success he realized with The Godfather. And although the severity of critics' reviews came as a shock, Puzo was also cognizant that the inevitable comparisons between his latest effort and the book that had endeared itself to readers everywhere would not be favorable. In Fools Die, Osano explained this unfortunate reality for every author to Puzo's alter ego Merlyn, warning the neophyte author simply, "you get one big book in your lifetime." Aware that The Godfather's influence would greatly boost Fools Die's sales at the expense of the novel's critical reception, Puzo strove not to please his audience, as he had done with The Godfather, but rather, wrote Fools Die for his own personal satisfaction, glorifying his life story and his existence as a writer/artist via Merlyn. "I wrote Fools Die for myself," the author confessed. "I wanted to say certain things about gambling, Las Vegas and the country."
As Puzo had anticipated, the past success of The Godfather was the key factor responsible for both Fools Die's solid sales figures and brutal rejection by his literary peers. The value of the Godfather franchise secured the most lucrative publishing deal to date for the paperback rights to Fools Die, a deal that was chiefly responsible for the advance popularity Fools Die enjoyed and the subsequent escalated demand for the novel. Yet, this demand heightened expectations about Fools Die to unattainable levels, and the ensuing reviews unfailingly reflected the bitter disappointment felt by critics and discerning readers alike. Despite such a bitter reception, Fools Die remained on the bestseller charts for six months and enjoyed moderate success, although its sales figures paled in comparison with those of The Godfather.
Without the powerful backing force of The Godfather, Fools Die never would have been a bestseller. However, had there not been such an intimidating benchmark against which to measure Fools Die or establish such towering expectations for the infant novel, Puzo would not have been made to endure such brutal, remorseless personal attacks from the very same publications that had once unanimously applauded his storytelling efforts. Because Fools Die relied upon the enormous presence of The Godfather to attain best-seller status, it was only fitting that Puzo's Vegas novel was forced to languish in The Godfather's towering shadow, forever unable to compete with the memory of its popular predecessor.