A first novel, loosely based on actual events from the late 1980s, describing the confusions and travails of a young Italian-American from Brooklyn implicated in the murder of a black man.
Bensonhurst in 1989 (i.e., the pre-Giuliani era) was trying hard to remain what it had always been: a quiet backwater of Brooklyn, of little interest to anyone who did not already live there. Tony Santangelo, born and raised in Bensonhurst, was a true neighborhood boy with all the proper loyalties, but he succeeded nevertheless in nearly destroying the place by bringing in the one thing his neighbors could not tolerate: publicity. Tony took part in the fatal beating of a young black, an act so apparently wanton and unprovoked that it attracted international attention and set off a veritable invasion of protest marches and rallies. After serving five years in jail for the crime, Tony came back to Brooklyn and took a job as a security clerk. His story seesaws back and forth in time for ten years, beginning in 1989, but the fulcrum of the tale is the night of the slaying, even if the narration is episodic and somewhat rambling. We learn that Tony once had a black girlfriend, we are treated to descriptions of backseat orgies and depraved bachelor parties, and we find casual references to the neighborhood wiseguys who are part of the local terrain. Tony’s grandmother Vera likes to cook and spends a lot of time in church. Tony’s grandfather Val is a Giants fan. Tony’s father Gino isn’t around very much. A suspicious-looking black man with a tattoo on his neck seems to be stalking Tony after his release from prison. What does it all add up to? Well might one ask, especially as the whole undertaking is narrated in the sort of workshop prose (“Cars passed on the highway above: the rhythm of tires rolling over grids in the road; for a brief moment, through an open car window, music”) that seems intent on making as few points as possible.
Plodding, dull, and unappealing: a bad start.