by Peter Byrne
Bevilacqua, Emmanuele: Estate di Yul (A Summer with Yul) Leconte Editor, Rome, 2006, ISBN 88-88361-58-8, pp. 165.
(Swans - April 9, 2007) The bad luck of Estate di Yul is to have been cast as a novel at all. It would have made a passable memoir and could have been an excellent diary. But publishers have convinced us that only a novel can pay its own way. They may be right, but you have to pity them if they actually prefer an anemic novel to a full-blooded book of another sort.
The Yul of the title, something of an afterthought, can be quickly disposed of. This is the story of the sojourn in Los Angeles in 1975 of Leo, an Italian of twenty. He's enamored of American pop culture, and the names of seventy or eighty of its icons will punctuate the book. One of them is Yul Brynner, and the image of the actor will serve Leo as a talisman until his safe return to Italy.
The author's use of these icons gives us a first hint of his status as a non-novelist. They obviously mean a lot to Leo and his friends, but we are never shown in any dramatic way exactly what they mean to them. Nor is the power or artistry of the mythic figures from Crosby, Stills & Nash (p.15) to Bruce Springsteen (p. 157) ever put across in words. Something of the same order can be said of the people Leo has to do with. He describes their actions as he might an opponent in a boxing match and comments on their behavior. But they never become characters worthy of an autonomous existence in a novel.
Leo's first-person account results in some good sharp prose with never a ragged edge. It's the telling of the whole story that's full of abrupt swerves, muffed climaxes, and unevenness. The precision of the writing particularly shines forth in Leo's description of his gymnastics with the bevy of Californian women he beds or, more often, who bed him. The sex, as they used to say in those years, is good, perhaps the best part of the book. Henry Miller, on his last legs, makes a fleeting appearance, and Bevilacqua clearly learnt from him how to lay down the unvarnished facts like a clinician. The master's careless exuberance, however, eludes him.
The presence of the 85-year-old writer increases the suspicion that Leo has drawn us into a time warp. Good old Henry published the two Tropics, his best books, in the 1930s and instructed GI's in the facts of life in the 1940s. In 1975 it had been some time since the censors had knocked on Miller's door. The unvarnished facts by then made for small talk among the pupils of elementary schools. And, sure enough, in Bevilacqua's last act of self-sabotage as a novelist, he will tell us in a 2006 afterword that he conceived the story back in the time it was set.
All the way through, Bevilacqua seems to be busily at work sapping the dynamics proper to a novel. Take Leo's two efforts at knife play on trips to Mexico. In the first he saves the day for himself and two friends by planting a threatening taxi driver's weapon in the man's own thigh. But because the reader hasn't been led up to the incident, which won't be put to dramatic use afterwards, it amounts to no more than an isolated report on the back sheet of a small town paper. The second appearance of the taxi driver and his knife occurs on Leo's second Mexican jaunt. This time Leo, alone and under the weather, barely escapes with his life. But as narrative impact goes, it's still only another local news item.
The most flagrant case of anticlimax comes in Leo and his friends' attendance at a San Francisco concert of the Jefferson Starship and the Grateful Dead in Golden Gate Park. The young man, on the eve of leaving California for good, is already dripping nostalgia. As an adept of rock and roll, he's also vibrant with joy at seeing his idols up close. The reader prepares for a genuine flight into the stratosphere of pop poetry, like those surreal verbal frescos of the Newport Folk Festival back in the 1960s. But the dazzling evening rapidly fizzles out and, the next thing we know, Leo and his friends are engaged in the humdrum search for where exactly they parked their car.
This submerged anti-novel persists right up to the final pages. After a dash full of incident to the East Coast, the author gets his three penniless young Italians to JFK just in time for their plane home. Finis? Curtain? Not on your life. Bevilacqua then gives us ten pages on various vicissitudes of the cross-country drive that we have already completed by the skin of our teeth with no little sweat and anxiety.
Could Leo be meant to show that the line from the 1950 beatniks to the rock extravaganza of the 1970s has come to an end? He constantly tries on other people's clothes that never fit. The only moment of truth he experiences re-phrases the old saw that to be a hobo guarantees a certain freedom: "As a bum I feel at last like myself, freed from the wrapping of manners and habit that tells lies about me." (p.98)
But Leo's sampling of footloose travel usually ends in unromantic discomfort and yearning to be back in his own bed. His time "on the road" in the trek from West to East by car brings no euphoric interludes or Whitmanesque phrase making. In fact he finds the trip too burdensome to talk much about. Learning to drink tea and beer was probably enough exoticism for this Italian boy. His one recall of his native place suggests that he will end by ignoring its tedious conformism and deciding there's no place like home after all: "It's a city that sleeps badly, never closing its eyes in fascination, or in a desire for mystery. It's a noisily apathetic city where you may as well be outside since there's no personal life inside. In my city you can't even feel you're a case apart because everybody claims they are too." (pp. 74-75)
And yet Estate di Yul, with its trenchant, often lapidary notations, is definitely worth reading. It simply demands of us an imaginative leap that would let us see it as Leo's diary of his time in L.A. Bevilacqua is a self-centered writer and should have capitalized on the fact rather than hidden it in a half-hearted novel.
Young travelers from the developed world generally go to live in another country for one of two reasons. They want to throw off their baggage from home and begin a new life on their very own terms or -- I'm simplifying, various combinations being possible -- they want to participate fully in the national life of another country, on that nation's terms. (Don't ask them why they haven't been able to do so at home.) Leo falls heavily into the first category. The author's epigraphs chart his path. Italy in that year was "restless and changing fast," he says, citing an Italian singer laboring in the wake of Bob Dylan. But he quickly slams the door on that kind of history, and we are faced with the existential night of Thelonious Monk, also duly quoted.
Leo left Italy at one of its most tumultuous periods, afterward referred to as "the years of lead" -- that's lead as in bullets. Politics and terrorism were in the streets, and on everyone's mind. The Red Brigades were founded in 1970 and claimed their first murder victim in 1974. Leo came to a country where unemployment was rife and that had just evacuated its last citizens from Saigon under siege. The Watergate conspirators were being convicted and President Ford escaped two assassination attempts in seventeen days, both in California. But Leo will stumble through his stay there with his head full of nothing much more than those pop culture icons and his juvenile questing. So be it. No one can dictate his subject matter to a writer. Leo read Henry Miller on Big Sur, not Joan Didion on the slouching beast coming down the freeway looking for Bethlehem.
Leo, then, is not so much discovering America as checking out his European's youth culture dream against the real thing. His difficulty, or anyway ours, will be that in this area there is no real thing, only another dream, America's dream of itself. The grown-up kids back in Italy, now bald and pot-bellied, think they are living by proxy through Leo a reality that the young man hasn't got much closer to than if he stayed at home like they did with mama's cooking, less hassle, and a pile of records. The big trip only reinforced Europe's youth lore fantasies.
Leo's infatuation with America sheds some light on the bicephalous nature of third millennium European anti-Americanism. This freakish contradiction has lately reached paroxysm thanks to the death and destruction provoked by the Bush administration. Demonstrations complete with flag burning occur regularly. The European Union, for its part, has no other unanimously shared attitude to build on except that it's not America. That doesn't prevent the fever of its obsession with all things American to blaze on.
To take an example at hand, Italian political parties are at this moment locked in a bitter dispute over whether it was right to let the American military base in the city of Vicenza be enlarged from 2,750 to 4,500 personnel. At the same time in Vicenza and every other city of Italy the public will be seeing dubbed American movies tonight. Its radio stations will resound with hip-hop, the more à la page of them broadcasting US pop offerings directly in English. TV will continue to ape its US model of thirty years ago. No arrival in Rome's airports will cause more havoc than the plane bearing Brad Pitt or Nicole Kidman. If you ask an Italian university student about his future plans, he's quite likely to tell you, misty eyed, about his dream of a year in New York or San Francisco.
The enthusiasm for America and its pop and even more highbrow culture has not diminished notably despite the travel restrictions that followed 9/11 and other ham-fisted initiatives. In business and civic matters, Italians, left, right and center, routinely reach for the American yardstick to measure their accomplishments. Somewhere in Europe this minute, you can be sure that another lightly scarred prodigal son limps home thinking about his evening at the Lincoln Center. He can't get that rhyme from gangsta rap, strophe of reggaeton or strange krump contortion out of his mind.
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