In La Piana’s novel, the son of Italian immigrants struggles to understand his remote father while growing up in Los Angeles.
John Russo is an enigma to his only child, the narrator of La Piana’s first novel. Every day, Russo goes to a factory where he “loads endless cases of paint into living-room-sized trailers that are then pulled away by big diesels.” After work, he heads home, eats a meal with his in-laws, wife and son, and then collapses in front of the television before going to bed. Russo doesn’t beat his son—though many fathers do in Pico Rivera, east of East LA—but he also doesn’t engage with him at all. As the narrator finds his place in the neighborhood, he learns that his olive skin and immigrant family qualify him as “brown” rather than a “paddy.” He also tries to make sense of his father’s withdrawal from the world. In one instance—when Russo intervenes in a neighbor’s drunken attack on his wife—the narrator sees a spark of the man his father once was, but that light quickly fades. As a teenager, the narrator frequently brushes against criminality and death, losing one of his childhood friends in a shooting and himself almost dying from a stabbing. Miraculously, he survives high school and is accepted into college; he also learns about his father’s World War II experience in the Battle of Kasserine Pass, “one of the worst defeats of American arms in any war.” Although the narrator doesn’t make this discovery until college, La Piana’s novel alternates between the narrator’s coming of age and Russo’s harrowing battle to stay alive in North Africa. La Piana writes insightfully about the tense interplay of race, ethnicity and class in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, when describing the neighborhood’s reaction to a gay couple, the narrator observes: “In poor neighborhoods people tend to use impolite terms for groups of people, like queer, paddy, or nigger, but they also tend to treat individual people from those groups like they treat everybody else. Middle class folks, on the other hand, know better than to call people names, but they also tend, inadvertently of course, to avoid people who are different from themselves.” La Piana’s characters are similarly nuanced for the most part, although his choice to highlight Russo’s accent using nonstandard spellings such as “dey” and “dem” can distract from the damage caused by his experiences in the war.
A uniquely American tale of the lasting impact of war, the power of friendship, and a fraught bond between father and son.