AN ITALIAN GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Jerry & Charles Sopkin Della Femina


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Ad-man Della Femina should have stopped while he was ahead (From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor), or waited until he had sorted out where he was going with the ""contention that the Italians alone. . . have never completely accepted the so-called American experience."" This is variously a memoir and a polemic, an indictment of his own people and the wall they built around themselves in Brooklyn's Gravesend so ""nobody could get in but we didn't perceive that nobody could get out."" Of course Della Femina got out (although he doesn't share his route), despite the neighborhood's stifling of aspiration; so this is tacitly self-congratulatory, and also insensitively patronizing. He pities the old crowd, all moved into their unimaginative development-style dream-houses in Jersey or Staten Island, not one of the men self-employed not to mention professional, none of them ever wanting to eat out, still retaining the mores and prejudices of Gravesend. Under-exposed but pleased with themselves, they pity him too, dubbing his aberrations (beard, psychiatrist, Manhattan) Jewish: ""Well,' said one guy, 'if you're going to make so much money I guess you got to eat in those French restaurants.' And everyone nodded sympathetically."" Della Femina's Gravesend was victimized by ""the system"" if not by itself; but how can the schools be blamed for the Italians' view of education (""the mind was not a sponge. . . but rather like a balloon. Thus, if you stuffed too much knowledge into that balloon, it was going to burst"")? By remembering ""the neighborhood,"" run by the matriarchs, smelling of meat sauce, living for gambling, Mafia-influenced (or not, depending on the page), betrayed by the Church, predictable even at funerals and weddings, Della Femina might be resolving some private identity crisis, or justifying his turning his back on his roots, or atoning for same. . . . Whatever his purpose, his attitude will be too smug for the unassimilated Italians he writes of, and the slight book is too full of careless contradictions and unconfronted questions to commend itself to a non-parochial readership. To use his most persistent locution, why the hell bother? what the hell's the point?

Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 1978
Publisher: Little, Brown