An Italian immigrant becomes a New York mobster in the early decades of the 20th century.
In his debut novel, Berri presents Michael Pellegrino, an Italian who immigrates to New York at age 12 in 1906. He’s a tough, ambitious boy, and by the age of 21 he begins his own business transporting fresh produce by rail across the country. When Prohibition begins, he uses his legitimate business as a cover for even more lucrative bootlegging and loan-sharking activities. Pellegrino is completely ruthless and adopts a take-no-prisoners policy against anyone who stands in his way. At home, however, he’s gentle with his wife, Regina, and their young son, Charlie, who receives two educations: one at private school and another from his violent cousin, Benny, back in Italy. With a new name, Pell, the prosperous Michael backs an ex-boxer’s movie career, a racehorse, and a politician who’s on the fast track to becoming president. Meanwhile, Charlie attends Boston University and falls in love with a girl from the neighborhood, Elaine Solofra, whose insatiable sexual appetite seems tied to acts of violence. Berri has written a novel very much in the vein of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969). He knows how to move his story along at a headlong pace, and it’s punctuated by violence and sex in the manner of a bestselling novel from the 1960s or ’70s. However, there’s not much in the way of conflict to keep readers interested in the tribulations of his one-dimensional characters. The sex scenes are reminiscent of Harold Robbins at his most florid (“he plunged into her like a runaway freight train with no conductor”). When it’s Charlie’s turn to take over the narrative from his father, he’s completely overshadowed by Elaine, who turns out to be a far more fascinating character than he is.
An uneven novel that doesn’t have much that’s new to say about the Italian immigrant experience in America.