A boy growing up in New York City becomes riven between good and evil in this debut coming-of-age novel.
The story opens with the unnamed narrator as an infant, timid in nature and emotionally attached to his teddy bear. His father is quite the opposite. Recently released from prison and the son of an Italian immigrant prizefighter, he is tender toward his family but has a brutal temper when crossed by others. When the narrator is being bullied at school, a man in a red sweat suit arrives, douses the culprit in gasoline, and threatens to torch him. The narrator suspects that the “red stranger” is connected to his father, and his innocence begins to slowly recede. After developing a proclivity to play truant from high school, the narrator has a chance encounter with his teacher Delbar Pahlavi, who introduces him to the joys of classic literature. The narrator’s family moves to New Jersey, where he adapts to suburbia; finds a girl, Alex; and, in time, becomes an attorney. It is at this point in his life that the “red stranger” returns, offering the possibility of great wealth, to be accrued from fixing horse races. The lure of the dark side is devilishly tempting. Cea offers a contemporary take on the classic German Faust legend, in which a demon lures the dissatisfied protagonist into temptation. This is intelligent, weighty writing. When describing his grandfather, the narrator notes: “He wasn’t courageous, just fearless. His demeanor was of a quiet confidence. Some people may have mistaken him for complacent. That wasn’t it either. He was just satisfied with the way his life turned out, and completely happy.” The portrait is followed by a pleasingly serene account of the family making wine together. These tender observations are counterbalanced by searingly pitiless passages, as when the narrator’s father urinates on a corpse, commenting: “I told him I was going to piss on his grave. I’m just saving myself the trip.” Cea proves expert in celebrating and berating the cult of masculinity in equal measure. On occasion, the author shoehorns in a philosophical debate, such as a protracted conversation between a priest and a physicist regarding Creation. Although engaging, this is somewhat incongruous to the developing narrative. But this proves only a minor distraction from a thoroughly engrossing novel.
Vivid storytelling in a Faustian tale, with a few meanderings.