Swans Commentary » swans.com May 9, 2011  



The End Or The Beginnings Of A Novelist


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Scibona, Salvatore: The End, Graywolf Press, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1555974985, 320 pages.

"You have not become an American until you have learned to impersonate yourself in a crowd." (Page 68)


(Swans - May 9, 2011)   In American fiction immigrants have come a long way on a bumpy road. Upton Sinclair saw them in The Jungle of 1906 in a single dimension. In their rare leisure his Chicago stockyard workers dance folklore for us. But otherwise they suffer exploitation full time. They have no inner life of the kind you and I have twenty-four hours daily. Moreover, they are not very bright. They show none of the resourcefulness that would have been necessary to get a poor man from one side of the world to the other.

Sinclair succeeded admirably in showing the criminal squalor of the meatpacking industry. But his immigrants were no more than pathetic victims in his trenchant demonstration. They had a long literary trek in front of them before they became fully human. In the 1930s John Steinbeck put some depth into his working-class characters. Brought up amongst the immigrants and migrant workers of California's Salinas Valley, Steinbeck made foreign arrivals more rounded figures. Still, the weight of the Depression led Steinbeck to emphasize how the economic system squeezed the immigrant rather than how he felt about himself as a man.

Henry Roth's Call It Sleep of 1934 put American immigrant novels in a new light. Roth himself was an immigrant born in Galicia. But he was also plunged in American literary culture of his time, writing in Greenwich Village, no less. It became obvious that only authors with a foot in both camps -- back there and right here -- could restore full humanity to immigrants in American writing. Into the bargain, Roth was introspective to a fault and couldn't deny his own complex feelings even if he tried. His personal complexity, unfortunately, was such that it would saddle him with a sixty-year writer's block. But that, to coin a phrase, is another story.

Salvatore Scibona was born in Cleveland in 1975 and grew up among local Italians. Both sides of his family had come from Italy. Like Roth he walks a line between different ways of life. But seventy years separate the birthdays of the two writers and Scibona has profited from a new proximity between continents. He has been back and forth to Italy and achieved a clear and cool view of the contrast between the two mentalities. In his case we are tempted to drop the immigrant-lit tag altogether and see him simply as an American novelist who writes about the people he knows best.

The End builds on events tailor-made to put off contemporary readers. Are they intrigued by a baker who stands out only in that he's lighted his oven 10,685 consecutive mornings to start a fifteen-hour work day? What about a seamstress who gets impregnated by a stranger in a violent one-off encounter of which we are not even given the lurid details? Or her bricklayer husband's common as sin love-hate for his adolescent son? The boy goes to school with the Jesuits, but we've been through all that with verbal fireworks in James Joyce. Right? Nor does anything much happen on the grape farm out in the sticks except slow ruin and a lot of pruning of the vines. A mean old woman does abortions in her basement, but without the least drama or reference to right or wrong. She could be taking in laundry. Oh, yes, there's a timid young man who plays the musical saw. Any buyers?

The marvel is that Scibona turns this gray quotidian into one of the few quality reads of recent memory. The End quivers with the excitement that comes from digging deep into characters after pursuing them zigzag from unaccustomed angles. The story's pulsing arena is the celebration of the Assumption in an Italian neighborhood of Cleveland on August 15, 1953. To this festival we will come and go throughout the novel, viewing it through the eyes of different characters. But the path to understanding what they see will take us far from Lake Erie and sometimes all the way back to the previous century.

The novel unfolds in what at first seem to be distinct parts. Each mirrors a single character's experience and perspective. As we read on we wonder if we haven't picked up a book of short stories instead of a novel. The parts all touch a single place and group, but one part doesn't lead into the next. Nor does any character take on the weight and central role that would indicate, as novels do, that it's his particular destiny that's at stake and will be determined by the last page.

Nonetheless, Scibona has written a novel. He simply hasn't proceeded in a straight line. The character who lays out his vision in what's seemingly a short story will eventually be stumbled on by another character who relays his experience in what seems like another short story. The two may or may not be aware of one another at the time, but each of their personal histories and present perceptions will add another dimension to the scene. Ten or so of these presences, some stronger than others, will make for a dense, multidimensional simulacrum of life.

Scibona, then, isn't a traditional novelist who tells a straightforward story one action after another. Nor is he a post-modernist who lets us know at every turn that he's too sophisticated to take the novel form seriously and is only juggling with it and playing with us. Rather, the author of The End is a tardy modernist in the mold of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, or T.S. Eliot. He's never playful and always deadly serious about his people and what they do. He constructs his story mosaic fashion and prefers collage to hurtling the narrative forward. These are familiar modernist ways as also is his fastidious handling of words.

Modernist too, of course, is the basic structure of Scibona's novel. The characters, enveloped in their own thoughts, pay visits to the same festival unknown to one another, bringing to mind Virginia Woolf's people. These non-encounters are sometimes so finely orchestrated that we risk missing them. An imp of the perverse makes us wonder if, perhaps, the author may have lingered too long at the Writer's Workshop of the University of Iowa. The corpse of modernism still presides out there in the tall corn. Modernists boasted of their obscurity. Joyce said there were enough hidden clues in his work to keep a scholar busy for a lifetime. But there's something incongruous in The End's earthy characters, who have never had a moment's leisure for the superfluous, ending up in puzzles to be solved by PhDs.

It would be boorish, however, to complain of over-refinement in current offerings where a novelist of any refinement at all is a rare bird. Better to reduce The End's looping and circling to a straight line for the ease of prospective readers. There's no better place to start than with the first lines of the novel and the description of Rocco the baker. We feel right off the magic of a genuine writer:

He was five feet one inch tall in street shoes, bearlike in his round and jowly face, hulking in his chest and shoulders, nearly just as stout around the middle, but hollow in the hips, and lacking a proper can to sit on (though he was hardly ever known to sit), and wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb.

Scibona's language surprises. Sentences are clean, short and tangible, but at the same time point to murky, unabbreviated truths. Here's the baker-no-more observing the Assumption Day festival:

Rocco had to envy the colored kids down there, dancing with the herd and by themselves at the same time as though they weren't obliged to pick one or the other. Either they were naïve, or he had made a needless choice. If he were ever put in jail, he hoped they wouldn't let him have a window.

Purely verbal poetry always lies close by the truth-telling.

Somebody smacked the lone tuba player on the back, Rocco saw this, and the mighty instrument turned around like a stag in the brush.

Rocco came from Sicily to Omaha in 1913. He worked in a rail yard goading steers on and off trains. He married Luigina, another immigrant, and moved to Cleveland. After three years working in an Italian bakery, Rocco took over the business. The only way he could pay off the purchase price was to open every day of the year and do all the work himself. His "streak" began and would last "for twenty-nine consecutive years of days."

Most of those years were difficult. Luigina bore three sons and Rocco could not always keep them fed, especially during the Depression. The family would sleep by the ovens to save coal. But the boys were his consolation and he loved Luigina because she was their mother.

Rocco's thoughts on his family highlight the immigrant predicament. He came from a way of life where people put away childhood and "hardened" once and for all early in their lives. He saw this wasn't going to happen with his boys. The New World left them in a constant state of "becoming." Luigina, who had been brought up in America, shared this trait. When Italian friends in New Jersey found her a factory job she moved there with two of the boys. The temporary arrangement became permanent. When the third boy joined her, Rocco was left alone with his streak.

He had been "wifeless" for seventeen years when the armistice was signed in the Korean War. Marine officials arrived to tell him one of his sons had died in a prisoner of war camp. Rocco simply refused to believe them and insisted his son was still alive. But his life fell apart all the same and his streak was over. On Assumption Day 1953, customers were annoyed to find the bakery closed. The baker got his car ready to drive to New Jersey and revive his thirty-three-year marriage.

But before Rocco leaves he's invited for lunch at the widow Marini's. Her house, which he has never entered before, stands next to the bakery. The wily old woman -- she's 93 -- has her own reasons for inviting him. She wants to keep Ciccio, the boy she looks after, busy socializing and out of trouble during the day's festivities.

The widow has lived in the neighborhood longer than anyone. The determining decision of her life took place on a rail platform in Lazio, near Rome, when she was nineteen. She ran away to join her husband-to-be in America, which meant abandoning forever her native place and the constraints of family. Fleeing from home and parental control will be the constant theme of The End. Emigration introduces the characters to a nomad existence, a sin in the old country but which they come to find liberating despite its pain. The drive to parenting, on the other hand, will never leave them.

The widow, whose only child died young, is bent on managing the offspring of others. She has a class advantage on her neighbors. Her husband was a modest manufacturer of women's shoes. He left her comfortably off after elevating her to the lower middle class. His money did the trick but also his insistence that she speak the national brand of Italian and adopt the genteel touches that went with it. Since her neighbors were all working-class speakers of dialect, she assumed, thanks also to a steely character, what seemed like a "natural" ascendance over them. She was the opinionated doyenne of the Italian quarter.

The widow groomed Lina, the wife of Enzo as a stand-in daughter. He was a bricklayer from the Naples countryside. In the Depression the young couple scraped along. Lina did piecework in an overcoat factory, while Enzo kept in work thanks to his union membership. A deeper problem was their inability to have children. In time relief came, so to speak, when Lina was made pregnant by one of the few natives to appear in the novel. This consummate neurotic, seducer/rapist/inseminator -- the author is coy about what really happened -- then bows out until he makes his visit to the Assumption Day festival, which he celebrates by drowning himself in the river.

Lina has parents of her own ensconced on a grape farm that brings in no money and is mortgaged to the hilt. Her mother is an uncomplaining domestic slave and her father a petty tyrant who chose Enzo as son-in-law because he demanded no dowry. When Lina's father inherits a family house in Sicily, he leaves his wife amongst the shriveling vines and reverses the immigration process.

Enzo, like the author, is not too inquisitive about how his son, Ciccio, was conceived. He is simply overjoyed by fatherhood. But all is not well with Lina who hasn't been able to digest the situation. When we meet the family again the boy is an adolescent and Lina has long departed. Enzo's love for the boy is unbounded, but his attempt to tame him with old world discipline ends in twisted nerves for both of them. Here the widow Marini steps in and takes Ciccio to live with her. He doesn't mind escaping his father's solicitude. Learning table manners from the widow doesn't bother him at all and fits in with the upward trajectory he's initiated at a Jesuit school.

Lina, after seven years of wandering, returned home without explanation just in time for her husband's funeral. Enzo had not been too happy to confront his father when the old man came from Italy on a visit. But their own episode of parent-child love-hate ended with both their mortal lives in a car crash. This left the indestructible widow Marini in command of the field. She moved quickly. After castigating Lina for her betrayal in going away, she sets the younger woman up as her heir. For years the domineering widow has been running an abortion service behind her decorous walls and wants to hand the business over to her ersatz daughter. Lina, a widow now herself, has no qualms about accepting.

Scibona's perception here of Italians and their religion is sharp as a scalpel. The noisy moral debate over abortion doesn't exist for these women. The widow Marini in her musings says she has no remorse for "the spirit remains of several hundred oleaginous children in the cellar." The nonagenarian judges her chief sin to have been turning her back on her home town and her family at nineteen. Vatican religion and its moral strictures are late comers to the Mediterranean. Ancestral duties to the clan came first.

The widow Marini shouldn't be seen merely in a picturesque light; she's a literary creation of real substance. Here she is recalling a conversation with her husband in the first years of her marriage:

And you said, "Why did you say you would marry me, if you didn't want me?" And I should have said it wasn't true, I should have said I did want you. But instead I told you the truth. I said, "You aren't what I expected."

She invokes a later conversation with her husband in his old age. He's incapacitated, sinking, and she's feeding him:

You were not what I had expected. It was at least as bad as you feared: You were a disappointment to me. Unless you open your eyes and tilt back your head, I will tell you something else. I will do it. ...You are still a disappointment to me.

Ciccio is fascinated by the word "absquatulate." Armed with his Jesuit-sharpened wits, he takes off for Chicago at fifteen. He couldn't resist his immigrant gene and the insistent pressure of American becoming. The author calls it "his first escape." What will happen to him? And how will the fifty-seven-year-old Rocco be received by Luigina in New Jersey? A sequel could tell us, if a modernist would stoop to that sort of thing.

Cleveland belonged to Harvey Pekar. But now Salvatore Scibona has staked his claim. He embraces it all: the impact of black migration from the South and the subtleties of the ethnic boundaries. The widow Marini, for instance, speaks English with the accent of the Germans who held sway in the neighborhood before the Italians arrived en masse. Here's Rocco looking from his roof:

[...W]hen you are the baker and it's summertime you will pay dearly for a cooling breeze. The house was on the tippy-top of Elephant Park, and from there he could see the thousand glittering lamps above the highway, the spires of many churches, the mills expiring their sulfurous clouds, the rim of the lake to his right. The city was a mammoth trash heap -- even the lake was brown -- but it was an honorable place. It put pretty to one side. Nobody ever came here to have a good time. It was a place for people who had quit being children. It was a place to be employed for a period of a half century and thence to pass out of this life. That nobody regarded it as anything else made it unique in his limited experience and sacred.

The End of what then? A few blacks new to the city take the tumult around the yearly religious procession for a street dance. In all innocence, they join in. This strikes the once-a-year pious as profanation and celebrations stop. The incident marks the point when the tradition no longer suits the habitat. It comes to an end.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 9, 2011