- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004


By Joseph Colicchio

Bridge Works Publishing, $23.95, 272 pages


You read Joseph Colicchio’s “The Trouble With Mental Wellness” and you get the feeling that he’s following the old dictum to write about what you know — he’s been where the novel takes place, he knows the neighborhood and the people who live there intimately. If he’s not their friend, he is at least a sympathetic observer.

The neighborhood is Nicky Finucche’s. He’s lived there for all of his 40 years, and during that time it hasn’t changed much, except maybe to slide a little downhill, becoming a bit more ramshackle and rundown. It’s a lower-middle-class but still immigrant-white section of Jersey City, and Mr. Colicchio’s characters fit it like a glove. There is not a winner in the batch. And there’s no sign that things are going to change anytime soon, either for them or for the neighborhood.

This in spite of the fact that the book’s protagonist (you can’t call him a hero because, really, he’s kind of a slob) has a master’s degree in counseling psychology from New Jersey City University, and for that reason alone ought to be upgrading the area. But not if you know Nicky Finucche.

The degree allows Finucche — called Finooch by those who know him, including himself — to set up a mental wellness clinic in a storefront that had once been his father’s butcher shop and meat market. He seems to have acquired his master’s degree rather late because he is 40 when the story opens; we eventually learn that during the period he’s been in business he’s had a total of 35 clients.

He calls them clients, not patients, and almost all of the early ones were civil servants using their health insurance to fake enough mental problems so they wouldn’t have to work. But insurance plans changed, the clients departed, and by the time we meet Nicky his gravy boat is no longer afloat. He is down to three (at that very moment becoming two) clients.

Even worse, within a couple of days he’ll be down to one because the other — a sweet old lady named Claire Hellman, who is rapidly losing her marbles — overdoses on sleeping pills.

The question then becomes (and the plot revolves around this question): Is Nicky Finucche guilty of malpractice? Or, is he at least guilty enough that the dead woman’s son can collect on Nicky’s malpractice insurance?

The plot is thin, but the novel is better than the plot. Mr. Colicchio has a warm style, draws his characters well, and plumps the reader down nicely in the Central Avenue neighborhood that is Nicky Finucche’s world.

Though Mr. Colicchio sketches his characters in realistic detail, a weakness of the novel is that they don’t react to situations the way one has been led to expect they will — or even how the situation calls for them to react.

Mr. Colicchio tells us that Nicky Finucche is smart but lazy. While the laziness is obvious, without Mr. Colicchio’s say-so the reader wouldn’t have any idea that he is smart. Instead, he comes across as not very bright, not very sure of himself, and incompetent, in his profession and also in his daily life.

It’s not merely that he had no idea how to handle the mental problems of elderly Claire Hellman, who just happens to be his sister’s mother-in-law, or that he doesn’t know what to do when she overdoses. It’s also that he doesn’t have the vaguest idea how to deal with the situation afterward.

Nicky doesn’t know how to answer a police detective’s questions, and when Terry, the villain (but not much of one) — who is Claire’s son and his sister Connie’s husband — sics a lawyer on him, he’s too dumb even to consider getting his own.

Nicky’s best friend, dating back to their school days, is Mo Nestor. Like Nicky he’s a bachelor, and like Nicky he lacks any real ambition. For a living he buys and sells old vinyl records. When he’s made $200, he thinks he’s had a good month.

Nestor is a large, hulking man, running more to fat than muscle, whereas Nicky is short, unathletic and afflicted with itchy ankles, sciatica and nervous bowels. The two friends frequent a neighborhood restaurant, even though they are bullied and insulted by the proprietor and his smart-alecky 16-year-old nephew, who waits tables.

The boy implies that Nestor is homosexual; you want and expect the two men either to walk out of the joint or slap the kid down, but they do neither. Readers get the impression that for all his bulk, Mo is afraid, whereas Nicky is willing to put up with insults and bad service because the restaurant is convenient and has air conditioning.

Nicky’s apartment does not: It’s above the meat market-turned-wellness clinic, and it’s where Nicky and Connie grew up. Connie is another of Mr. Colicchio’s oddball characters, weird but shy and sweet. She is a teacher who has just quit her job because she thinks the kids don’t like her. Married to Terry for 10 years, she suspects that he hates her, might even want to kill her.

Connie has spent her life figuring out why and how not to do things or go places. She does not patronize the mental wellness clinic, but Mr. Colicchio leaves no doubt that she could use a good one.

Connie is involved in the one absolutely repulsive scene in the book. It has to do with her preparation of a stew made of animal organs, a traditional Finucche family delicacy. You don’t have to belong to PETA to be glad you’re not a guest at that dinner or its making, when Connie is shown to rub a tiny, raw lamb’s heart across her lips and then gulp it down.

Nevertheless Connie is a likeable character, so it’s easy to cheer her when, after a lifetime of deliberate failure, she comes through (as you know she will).

Terry, her husband and Claire’s spoiled son, is money-hungry and would like to be rich, but his investments have never panned out and he lost his job a year ago. Now, however, he thinks he may have struck gold: his mother’s insurance money and more from Nicky’s malpractice insurance, if he can show that Nicky’s incompetence was responsible for his mother’s suicide.

Once again the plot lets us down here. Insurance companies don’t ordinarily pay out on suicides, but we are to take it for granted that this one does.

One of the scenes that Mr. Colicchio knows and describes well is the American Legion baseball team tryouts involving Butchie, Connie’s favorite student and the son of Jersey City police detective Ty Amadone. (Although I question whether a person can dislocate his shoulder merely by throwing a baseball. Butchie does.)

The love interest, sort of, in “The Trouble With Mental Wellness” is supplied by the vivacious and slightly wacky Lilly Giuliette, who has tiny breasts (“cupcakes,” she calls them), a willing body and a charm that captivates both Nicky and Mo.

Lilly is goofy in a nice way. She’s a meter maid on Central Avenue and for a while she was one of Nicky’s clients. Now she has decided to go to California, where she’s found a job in the Mohave Desert town of Barstow.

Before she leaves, though, she has a special treat for Nicky. After which she will depart, and we have no idea what’s to become of Nicky, because, as Mr. Colicchio told us early on, he’s lazy, and now he’s run out of clients.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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