- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

On Books


By Nicholas Montemarano

Context Books, $21.95, 226 pages

"How are you feeling? said Tony, who brought her a yellow rose." The young man is Tony Santangelo, and he has come to visit his great-aunt Sophia in hospital. We are close to the end of Nicholas Montemarano's compelling debut novel, "A Fine Place," several chapters of which have appeared in slightly different form in magazines and reviews.
The "fine place" is Bensonhurst, an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., that undergoes a significant transition during the novel's 10 or so chronological years. The change is about blacks arriving and Italian resentment of the cocaine they bring in and their presence generally. But Mr. Montemarano's story is centrally that of an Italian-American family, older people for the most part, traumatized by an event that occurs in August of 1989.
The catastrophe is the murder in a highway underpass of a black youth by young Italians from the neighborhood, "wise guys," bearing baseball bats. They beat their victim to death. Tony, beloved grandson, cherished darling of his family with the curly hair, is driving the getaway car, and he goes to prison for what he has done. In the aftermath, the killing prompts neighborhood demonstrations and protest marches, in which Tony is depicted on a placard with devil's horns. For years following, every periodic cry of racism in the neighborhood is traced back to this horrible crime.
Though its chapters are arranged in a chronological miscellany, including some epistolary sections across the years, the book's opening point for all practical purposes is the older members of the very traditional Italian family waiting for Tony to come home. He comes to his great-aunt Sophia at the last, as we have seen, but on the whole the book is about waiting. And it is about the disintegration of a family and getting old and dying.
Mr. Montemarano's social study is informative, but it is his study of family that principally interests. There is a lovely retrospective of the two old ladies in the story, Sophia and Vera, Tony's grandmother, when young. This is Vera remembering:
"But never in her life did she want to be the only one awake. When she was a girl could it have been seventy years ago? she slept in the same bed as her sister Sophia, and always they tried to fall asleep at the same time. They had a system: they slept with their backs touching, and every few minutes one would nudge the other and say, 'Vera, are you still awake?' or 'Sophia, did you fall asleep?'"
By the time the novel opens, Sophia's husband has been dead for 20 years, and she is prone to wake up in the morning with wet bed sheets. She never was able to have children, and is conscious of not being Tony's grandmother, which Vera is. Vera's husband, Sal, so fond of his cigarettes, is moody, if not morose, and doubtful of the two elderly women's expectations that Tony will come back to see them, even after getting out of jail. Tony's father, Gino, has not bothered to see his parents in two years.
Sal likes to hang out in the butcher shop of his friend, Carmine, who is a cameo in the story but whose obvious devotion to his store and the feeling of the raw meat in his hands is tangible to anyone who likes to cook. It reminded me of the sensation of slicing and otherwise preparing meat for a beef stew on an early Sunday morning.
There is a great scene toward the end of a family meal, just before the crucial event that changed all of their lives forever:
"Tony sat on the couch and loosened his belt. He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds around him sounds he knew and would always know: a match struck, the rattle of nuts in a bowl, the chewing of pretzels, ice cubes dropped into a glass, the uncorking of a wine bottle, slippers flapping against the bottom of his grandmother's feet, the hum of a fan, plates being stacked, voices in the sitting room, his grandfather's cough, another match strucksomeone calling his name.
"He woke and saw that an hour had passed. Pastries were on the table; the cheesecake had been sliced; the baseball game was long over.
"'Take a piece of cake down to your great-grandmother,' said Vera.'
"'He just woke up,' said Sal, 'and already you're putting him to work.'
"'She's down there all by herself.'"
The great-grandmother is 90 years old, and there will be a hilarious chapter later, when the men attempt to carry her up the stairs on a chair, without dropping her. An even funnier scene involves a bachelor party to which Sal, the grandfather, unaccountably is invited. The young men raise a fund for him to spend time with the prostitute they have brought in, but no one gets anywhere. Not so funny are the pages in which Vera misguidedly applies to adopt a child, and Sal tells her that she'll be 200 years old before her prospective little one goes to school.
Mr. Montemarano's gifts for description, piquant scene and apt, terse dialogue are impressive. His writing has a coolness about it that impresses from the word go, when the young Italians are gathering with their baseball bats, flat pieces of wood, and driving to Nino's pizzeria to ambush their victim.
There is too a splendid internal monologue when Tony is reflecting on his relatives' urging him not to get into any fights at the local pool hall, which he assures them rarely happen but tells the reader how there are fights there every night, usually between Italians over some woman, and how the same two men who have been fighting will go outside together to tackle any intruding black. The Italian community's endemic hostility to blacks may be the novel's most unpleasant aspect.
Vera's letters to hergrandson in prison, to which he never responds, and finally one from Sophia at Vera's request, are touching and fit, somewhat to the reader's surprise, neatly into the narrative. Clearly, from what has already been said, this is a somewhat miscellaneous novel, a collection of bits and pieces stitched together into a whole. But the overall effect remains pleasing.
The plotting of "A Fine Place" is one of its most skillful aspects. The beginning with the beating to death of the black youth, sets up the following story in a dramatic way. The elderly relatives' waiting for their Tony to return and trying to cope with the debacle of his crime moves along affectingly, with some of them sickening and dying along the way. The novel's denouement, utterly unexpected and ironic, is a treat.
The ultimate irony may be that Tony lost his virginity to a black girl a year before the mayhem, and the pair of them were harassed by two disapproving black men on a subway train. The episode leaves one with a feeling of sadness that seems in a way emblematic of the novel, which makes a lasting impression and speaks to Mr. Montemarano's knowing the territory. He was born in Brooklyn in 1970 (so still is a young man) and raised in Queens. He's achieved a great deal since in the way of shorter writing, and it is a pleasure to see this fine first novel come out. May he go from strength to strength.

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