MALAVITA by Tonino Benacquista


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Neither the witness protection program nor rural France can tame a Mafioso in this seriocomic romp.

A best-seller in Benacquista’s native France, this novel centers on Giovanni, a one-time mobster who’s escaped New Jersey with his wife, son and daughter after turning evidence against his former compatriots. Re-settling near Normandy, Giovanni, aka Fred, decides to sit down to write his memoirs, telling the neighbors he’s working on a book about World War II. But his cover is blown almost instantly; and not just because he’s largely ignorant about military tactics. He can’t help brandishing a hammer while negotiating with a plumber, and an invitation to discuss Goodfellas with the locals leads to an extended bit of oversharing that has his FBI minders in a panic. Benacquista is careful not to make this novel an outright farce—Fred’s wife, Maggie, takes on charity work as a response to the immorality she married into. But the story thrives on absurdities and coincidence, particularly in a virtuoso scene that shows how a casual utterance by Giovanni’s son travels from the school paper into the hands of mobsters eager to hunt down the family. Benacquista softens Giovanni’s character enough to court the reader’s sympathy for a coldblooded killer, but it’s never entirely clear if the author is gently sending up Mafia tropes or outright mocking them. The townspeople trade in plenty of anti-American stereotypes, and the climax satirizes action movie themes—thugs, bumbling authorities and all. The book takes its title from the name for the family dog (Italian for “lowlife”), but it’s clear who we ought to attach the name to. Likable but occasionally vicious, Giovanni is conflicted but not exactly nuanced.

A smart fish-out-of-water conceit, but it’s a little ungainly, never quite settling on a tone with which to crack wise about its wiseguys.

Pub Date: June 25th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-14-312385-9
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Penguin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2013


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