A dramatic panorama of Italian-American family life during the 1930s and ’40s emerges from this impressive collection of 26 subtly linked stories.
Papaleo (the novels All the Comforts and Out of Place, not reviewed) risks losing us with an annoyingly belligerent “Prologue for an Ethnic Life,” which condemns the stereotyping seen in The Godfather and The Sopranos, and righteously proclaims, “There will be no deceit or trickery in this volume . . . . Just my screaming voice telling you the truth.” The stories speak far more eloquently. A series of “Immigrant Epiphanies” focuses on the Mauro family of the Bronx, and particularly their son Johnny, through whose wide eyes we observe la famiglia’s weary tolerance of a “disgraced” aunt (“The Weeks of Charity”), Johnny’s gnomic, poetry-spouting elderly grandmother (“Nonna”), and his own preadolescent vacillations between religiosity and sexuality (“Mission”), among other matters. Other Mauros and their relatives and acquaintances filter through later tales grouped as “Losing the Bronx” and “Blendings and Losses.” Some of the best portray a frustrated cardiac patient who secretly courts “The End,” a prosperous pornographer facing his father’s imminent demise and the threat of deportation (“Leaving Vermont”), a disillusioning return to the old country (“Twenty-Nine Steps towards Re-Adhesion”), and Johnny Mauro again, now a middle-aged son who sweet-talks his aged father into accepting psychoanalysis rather than simply moving to Florida (“Shrinks”). One infers that there’s a lifetime of experience and reflection, as well as anger, behind these tightly plotted, deftly written, and often very funny pieces. The abundance of realistic detail makes credible and moving such expressions of ethnic indignation as the following protest against economic disadvantage: “We make rockets that can do everything but talk, but we still live in little shitboxes the way they did ten thousand years ago.”
And art still moves us in ways propaganda can’t even imagine. A year or so from now, the Pulitzer Prize people ought to take a close look at Papaleo’s Italian Stories.