FAMILY HONOR by George Cuomo


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A fairly intense interest in the history of US labor unions is a prerequisite for steady enjoyment of this 696-page novel--which follows Vinny Sirola from pre-WW I boyhood in the Bronx to his shining hour: helping to negotiate, as John L. Lewis' representative, a settlement in the volatile 1937 strike against General Motors. In the more broadly appealing opening chapters, we meet the Sirola clan: superstitious grandma Bella; gossipy Aunts Josie and Serafina; nasty vegetable-store-owner Paolo (a rotten boss to part-timer Vinny); Vinny's strong, quiet German mother; and his gentle failure of a socialist-dreamer father--whose unexpected death during a Union Square rally forces Vinny to give up smart-kids' school in Manhattan and become a laborer. While timidly discovering women (especially the enigmatic, worldly Dottle), Vinny becomes a good machinist, a reluctant leader of a small-scale strike in the mid'20s (he's arrested, roughed up, along with best-pal Jerry). Just before marrying smart Irish shop girl Meg, he's offered a job with the national machinists' union--as president of the Bronx local. So Vinny is soon loaded with responsibility, worrying about his family (a pouty, promiscuous niece as well as moody, tragically childless Meg) while getting deeply involved in union politics: he works to expose his boss' corruption, with both hindrance and help from Meg's punky, mob-connected brother; he appears on the podium at an International convention, leading a walk-out and forming a rival union; he endures interminable strike negotiation-sessions; he's the minor victim of a coup or two. And then, in the 1930s, hobnobbing with David Dubinsky and taking tea with FDR, Vinny becomes a top lieutenant to John L. Lewis--joining him (despite conflicts-of-interest) in the C.I.O. break from the A.F. of L., constantly traveling and (when Lewis is felled by illness) playing a major role in those fateful UAW triumphs. Meanwhile, however, both Vinny and Meg have adulterous lapses--while Meg sinks further and further into psychological/physical illness and self-isolation. (After her death, Vinny will find familial pleasure with old flame Dorrie in an epilogue.) Cuomo, author of Among Thieves and other shrewd novels, generally avoids the corny clichÉs of history-book/family-saga fiction; his dialogue is crisp, his narration uncluttered; and--though Vinny himself is a bit colorless--much of the domestic material comes across with naturalistic, sad-but-true power. But the emphasis throughout is on the minutely detailed, nuts-and-bolts matters of union-organization, internal leadership fights, and bargaining sessions--making this awfully slow going for anyone not fascinated by labor-history closeups.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1983
Publisher: Doubleday