Monday, January 14, 2008

A Canticle for Bread and Stones: Emilio DeGrazia's novel of Italian-American life

Growing up in immigrant families one hears stories. These stories are one of the ways we make sense of our histories, of each other, ourselves. When we are very young we can’t get enough of them. As we become acculturated we can’t seem to put enough distance between ourselves and the stories. And then there comes a time when we must have them again, a time when these stories are so essential to us that, at any risk, we must recover them, even though the original tellers may now be dead or suffering from the attrition of memory that comes with age.

A Canticle for Bread and Stones is a novel about stories; it’s a novel of stories. More specifically, it is a beautifully imagined narrative of the Italian experience in America, and as such it is a response to what Gay Talese asked for in his 1993 New York Times Book Review article, “Where Are the Italian-American Novelists?”

In that controversial article, Talese, a novelist-turned journalist, asserted that “it is a fact that there is no widely recognized body of work in American literature that deals with this profound experience.” While there may not yet be Italian-Americans who have produced an oeuvre like that of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud--and Talese offers some of the reasons for this disparity--there are both established novelists like the late Pietro di Donato and Gilbert Sorrentino and emerging writers like Joe Torra, Maria De Marco Torgovnick, Frank Lentricchia and Rita Ciresi, who have written trenchantly in memoirs, stories and novels about what it feels like to grow up Italian in America. With the publication of A Canticle for Bread and Stones Emilio DeGrazia, already the author of two prize-winning collections of stories, Enemy Country and Seventeen Grams of Soul, and the Minnesota Voices Award novel, Billy Brazil, joins their company.

The drama of this luminous novel involves not only the telling of stories about four generations of an Italian family’s experience in a mid-Western city, but the very quest for such stories. Its narrator-protagonist Salvatore “Sal” Amato, is an unemployed 28-year old “BA in History, City University” whose marriage is dissolving even as he and his non-Italian wife Sandy cling to each other sexually. As Sal half-heartedly looks for work, entranced by the women he encounters on the street and in shops (“God, what a lovely woman the stranger was!”) he becomes obsessed with a family legend.

The legend is about his great-grandfather Raphael, an accomplished stone mason, who left his native village of San Giovanni, south of Naples, to travel with the famous French architect Pierre Vente to America There, in a city bisected by a wide river, they were commissioned to build a great cathedral to be called St. Paul’s through which Raphael could make concrete his and Vente’s dream of a structure symbolizing faith, love and the redemptive nature of work (“He was in charge of the stones,” Sal’s mother says of Raphael. “He built the walls.”) The cathedral was completed to wide acclaim, but Raphael did not remain on the job to see his vision made manifest. Depending upon who tells the story, the family or the local diocese, Raphael was either dismissed from his job or left of his own volition because of irreconcilable differences about the details and design of the structure. The family’s version is one of betrayal, dismissal and regret, and it sets the theme for the family’s sense of its unsuccessful history in America. For in the next generation Raphael’s son Guido, Sal’s grandfather, was forced out of business, according to the family, by an unscrupulous landlord who sold him the building that housed his grocery store and then foreclosed on him when he was unable to make two mortgage payments.

The sense of betrayal and a concomitant loss of the promise of America emerges again in Guido’s son Paul, Sal’s father, recently retired after thirty-three years of hard labor in an automotive factory, where he made “the side part for carburators…three hundred a day.” Yet Paul reminds Sal, whom he calls a bum for not working, “Who ever said you were supposed to like work? We all hate work. That’s life.”

So it falls to Sal, who, with his pianist-composer brother Bruno and his “little sister” Bea, still an undergraduate, are the only members of the family to have had a college education, to get to the heart of the mystery of the family’s betrayal by America and the dream of success which has eluded them, and to find some way beyond their ambivalence about the very work that was to make the dream come true. Paul tells Sal, “Our people came here to this country to get out of the jungle, and we worked like animals all our lives. We came because we didn’t have washing machines and cars, because we were tired of living from hand to mouth, because we worked in the field all our lives.” Yet Paul, like his father Guido, yearns less for success or wealth than for a small plot of earth where he can grow beans and tomatoes; and Guido, long bereft of his store, returns daily to its empty rooms and backyard to brood over the lost business and his ruined garden. What are Sal and his siblings to make of this legacy of betrayal and ambivalence, of the conflicting and conflicted feelings about the new country the family has uneasily settled in, the nostalgia for the one that was abandoned (Sal’s mother’s mother Serafina had left America for Italy, never to return; while Guido, in his 90s, talks constantly of “going home” again—“It’s all in my mind, just the way everything was.”)?

Bruno’s choice is to make a precarious living playing piano in nightclubs and dives. By day he composes music (“some crazy blue tune”) in the vacant storefront of Guido’s old grocery, his grandfather constantly brooding outside in the garden. His lover Kate, born Protestant like Sal’s wife Sandy (“You Catholics are really weird.”) runs the Socialist Workers Party headquarters across the street. Kate idealizes work, but Bruno remains a drop-out from the Great Society, and Sal refuses to spend a life doing “stupid useless things.” Of himself and Bruno he says, “Bruno and I were alike: We both wanted to find a habitable hiding place away from a world growing too ugly for words.”

Under pressure from wife and parents, Sal searches desultorily for a job. He also searches for the elusive woman, the “soul,” which his father tells him is counterpart to man’s “flesh,” embodied in the unknown women he encounters in the ever more alien streets of his native city or the waitresses who serve him coffee along the Via Crucis of his quest. But his real search is for the truth of Raphel’s abandonment of St. Paul’s and for the man, Waldman, who cheated Guido out of his store, a German immigrant, now Catholic, now Protestant, who became a self-made millionaire. In getting to heart of Guido’s dissapointment and in finding and perhaps even punishing the mysterious and contradictory Waldman, Sal hopes to live up to his name and become the Savior of his family’s honor and history. Only this, he feels, will provide release from the uneasy tension he experiences in his marriage and from the taunts and exhortations of his family to become a man, that is, a worker, and a father himself.

The quest will not be an easy one. It will end with his mother’s death and the demise of his marriage. Sal will find a job briefly as an apprentice wood worker and uneasy comfort in seeing Bruno and Kate married and the parents of a child. He will watch his father entering a new life with Edna, a born-again Christian Pentecostal whom his mother befriends before her sudden death. Bea will settle down with Kate’s hippie-musician brother Dylan, and Sandy will move out to live with another man. Equally, Sal will come closer to an understanding of Raphael’s relationship with the church heirarchy under whom he was to build St. Paul’s. He will even confront Waldman, who emerges less an exploiter than a recluse whose wealth has brought him only confusion and isolation. But, more ominously, Sal will witness the destruction of his neighborhood as the city evicts his father, Bruno, Kate, and himself from their houses to make way for a gigantic sports complex. And with the razing of the places where the family has lived out its history the visible monuments of that history will dissolve.

All that will remain will be the stories and versions of stories, which Sal has patiently listened to, gathered, sifted and compared, his family’s stories and those of his mentor and ex-professor of history, Seymour Markels, who guides Sal’s work as family historian. All that will remain is what Sal has learned from the attempt of others to make sense of the myths of belief, labor and family they have accepted largely on faith and under the pressures of tradition. Sal’s own education, warily assented to by his parents, for they know it will eventually take him away from them, provides no key to his enlightenment, nor even a well-paying job in a city that renews itself by destruction as racial tensions mount and public space becomes privatized.

If A Canticle for Bread and Stones is a novel of stories it is also a novel of voices. Just as DeGrazia shows exceptional skill in weaving the stories told by and about the novel’s characters throughout the narrative, he is equally skillful in giving us the voices of the characters themselves. There is the sound of Sal’s father’s rough resignation: “Thank God I’m through. Thank God I’m almost dead myself.” Of Guido’s feisty hatred of the land that he never made his own: “Don’t talk to me about Amerdica!” Of his wife Rosina’s fluent piety: “All these years and no baby comes. What do you expect? Don’t forget to say the rosary every morning and night by your bed. You’ll see then a baby will come.”

If the bread of the novel’s title is what Sal’s family has lived on, the warm, sustaining, sacramental homemade loaves his mother has baked and served in spotless white napkins since his childhood, whose recipe will die with her, it is the stones of the world the men must ultimately shape and master in work in order to feel that their lives have purpose. The women have faith in prayer and song, the men seem to need something more concrete, those three hundred carburetor parts hatefully turned out or the plot of tomatoes lovingly tended after a day on the assembly line.

Canticle is song or psalm, celebration. In the book’s division into thirty-three chapters or cantos, each with its own theme or refrain, Emilio DeGrazia has given us more than a novel of Italian-American culture. A Canticle for Bread and Stones is also hymn to a vanishing way of life, to the once vital ethnic communities now disappearing everywhere in the face of mass culture and consumerism, and to love in all its exalted or perverted forms, especially, as Sal re-discovers as an Italian and Roman Catholic, the love of woman—Queen of Heaven, mother, sister, wife, stranger:

“What did I know about Her? Maybe even less than she knew about Me. But this I felt deeply and therefore knew all along: That she was vital to my work, that she who could bring new life out of passion (call it love) had the power to create and conserve I craved, that in her absence all work went wrong.”

(Emilio DeGrazia. A Canticle for Bread and Stones. Rochester, MN: Lone Oak Press, 1997. 312 pp. The author's photograph is reproduced from the dust jacket.)


Kathleen Valentine said...

Thank you, Peter, for such a wonderful review. I agree with you that there are some immigrant groups that have documented the coming-to-America experience well and others hardly at all. My mother's family came from Bavaria and the stories they told will probably die out if someone from my generation doesn't write them down. I guess I have my orders.

Coincidentally, my 11 year old nephew called me on Sunday from Pittsburgh and wanted me to help him write a school paper about my father, his grandfather... it was a good opportunity to give a few stories to another generation.

I'll look for DeGrazia's novel (to add to my ever-growing supply).

Thank you.

mark said...

I'm so glad I found you Peter!
I've often wondered how you've been doing, old friend!

It was almost as if universe dropped your blog into my lap(top). Maybe that means google is a gift from God the universe, since your blog jumped out and smacked me in the eye as I was searching for something else.

I'm so pleased to get to read you! Kind of cool that in this first post of yours I've had the pleasure to read, you praise DeGrazia's novel for giving voice to the people and the stories that are fundamental to his history and his meaning.... reminiscent of your input to me and a very fortunate few who took your Dogtown College "Writer's Voice" class way back then.

Last I saw you, very shortly before I left Gloucester, was at the celebration of your 50th downstairs of the Blackburn. Maybe that was 1988? I'll always remember that towards the end of that night, I passed you a comment disguised as advice. Out of line and even rude words. In retrospect I think it was advice I should have been heeding to myself. Saying those things has become one of those things that still sometimes wakes me up in a sweat, with that inner cringe caused by wishing I could suck back words that should never have been spewed. So sorry, 20 years late. If you don't remember it, then good. I'll do the remembering for both of us.

My life last 20 years has been very busy, creative, eventful, not easy but always landing on my feet, growing.

I would be pleased if you checked out my website for an update.
and I would be so honored if you made contact!

Injoy, Mark Alexander

Mr. J. Cook said...

"there are both established novelists like the late Pietro di Donato and emerging writers like Maria De Marco Torgovnick, Frank Lentricchia and Rita Ciresi, who have written trenchantly in memoirs, stories and novels about what it feels like to grow up Italian in America."

I'd add Joe Torra's name & his novels Gas Station, Tony Luongo, and The Bystander's Scrapbook to the list. Though I'm not sure these books attempt to depict "what it feels like to grow up Italian in America," they are undeniably Italian-American books.

Thanks for the review & also thanks for lending the Bezoar to Dave & Lisa. I got a peak at them a week or two ago. Inspiring.

James Cook