Two years ago, Random House held a contest to see who would write a sequel to Mario Puzo's 1969 smash novel, The Godfather, a Puzo-approved project that could potentially make its lucky author a household name. The winning writer, a creative-writing professor with two well-reviewed but hardly best-selling novels to his credit, was unmasked on Today in February 2003, in the sort of stunt rarely seen in publishing. ''And now, without further ado,'' announced Matt Lauer to his audience of millions, ''here is the winner, of Tallahassee, Florida, Mike Winegardner, Mike, congratulations.''
Except that somebody please alert America's households his name is Mark, not Mike. Had Winegardner been a real don, and not just the imagination behind The Godfather Returns, which fills in the holes between the first two Godfather films, Matt Lauer would likely be sleeping with the fishes right now. But Winegardner isn't even italian. ''He's German-Irish, like Tom Hagen,'' says contest judge Tony Puzo (son of Mario, who died in 1999), referring to the Corleones' adopted consigliere, played by Robert Duvall in the movies. ''Those are two family-oriented ethnicities that grasp the idea that my father expanded on, that the family comes first.''
In other words, it doesn't matter that this hearty Ohio native is not Italian; like Puzo who relied on the public library, not real mobsters, for his research Winegardner made it all up. And he bristles when anyone suggests he's unqualified. ''I found it really bizarre when a couple of newspapers said, 'Florida Professor Tapped to Write Godfather Sequel,''' fumes Winegardner, over dinner in Tallahassee. ''I'm thinking, the f--- are you talking about? Most of America's best writers teach! I'm offended by the take, because it makes it sound like I'm this professor who dabbles like, 'Band Director Writes Great Symphony,' I'm not Mr. Holland! Kiss my ass.''
He's riled up because it's that entrenched mindset the yawning gap in readership between genre and literary fiction, between what people read on airplanes and in grad programs that he wanted to challenge by deliberately writing, with The Godfather Returns, the all-too-rare ''literary page-turner.'' And that's what Random House picked him to do. ''He appreciated the balance between the wham-bang action of the novel and its more artful component,'' says his Random House editor, Jon Karp. ''Somebody once described The Godfather as being somewhere between pulp and Proust, and Mark understood that.''
And Winegardner says he makes a good living as a teacher, so it's not like he took the job for ''fame and fortune.'' He took it, he insists, partly so he might break out as a writer. ''I always fought the fate of the midlist author ferociously, just being another writer where the head buyer at the chain bookstores punches your name into the computer and says, 'Heh, why bother with his next one?''' says the ''literary'' author of you probably haven't read them The Veracruz Blues and Crooked River Burning. He just hopes readers will follow him to his next book, ''a novel about pornography and punk rock in Cleveland in the '70s.''