Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One Sausage and Pinochle
It happened by the grace of God that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a card game. This fateful game of pinochle took place in the back room of Santangelo's Sausage Shop, on Mulberry Street, in New York City, on the last night of the record-breaking heat wave of September 1949.
That summer, each day dawned hotter than the day before, and the nights were worse than the days. All night, pregnant women draped wet washcloths over their faces, begged the Madonna for a good night's sleep, and thought how lucky Mary was that her baby was born in December. Children, three and four to a bed, squirmed to escape each other's sweaty skin until their fathers' curses hissed through the dark and they dozed off only to wake, moments later, stuck together like jelly apples.
Downstairs, the streets belonged to the young men who gathered on the corners, smoking, tapping their feet as if the sidewalk were too hot for them to stand still, and especially to the sort of old people who claimed they never slept anyway. From the doorsteps and fire escapes, they kept watch through the humid night-grandmothers cooing like pigeons and picking their black cotton stockings, grandfathers with their eyes shut, their chairs tipped back, dreaming out loud of that legendary summer in the old country when all the grapes shriveled on the vine, when the trout boiled alive in Lake Maggiore and floated belly up so that the whole lake shone in the moonlight like this: And here the old men would reach in their pockets for a nickel or a shiny dime.
This summer, they said, was a hundred times worse. Compared to Mulberry Street, Lake Maggiore smelled like a rose garden. At this, theirwives nodded, even the ones who could usually be counted on to remember another time, in another place, when everything was bigger and better and more extreme.
Each morning, the papers ran photos of pretty girls in bathing suits frying eggs on midtown sidewalks. Each morning, some desperate mother asked her children: If I cooked on the pavement, would you eat? But her grumpy children only shook their heads, and even the best eaters would touch nothing but a slice of melon, a glass of milk, a peach. By noon, the bakeries were like steam baths, the bread like hot towels. Frank Manzone, the vegetable man, took to burying his wilted spinach beneath the last fresh leaves and stuffing it into paper bags, quick, so the housewives wouldn't see. The women knew that the spinach was wilted and bought it anyhow, because it was so hot that no one could stand to eat meat.
No one knew this better than Joseph Santangelo, the butcher, whose cash register hadn't rung since early June. Beads of oily sweat collected on the sausage, and the beef began to shine with the delicate fluorescence of butterfly wings. Eventually Santangelo transferred his stock to the refrigerator room at the back of the store, and spent August alone in his shop. Tired of staring at the empty cases, he'd make quick trips to the meat locker, like dips into a cool pond.
Labor Day came, summer's end, but the only thing that stopped was the air, which simply quit moving and would not budge no matter how the grandmothers fanned it with rolled-up newspaper and prayed to the Virgin for a breeze. Well into September, the temperature rose so steadily that even the young men got worried and repeated the solemn rumor that all thishad something to do with the A-bomb. Among the old women, alarmists were predicting the end of the world: Hadn't God promised the fire next time? What if He'd meant this low steady roasting? So saying, the women fell silent and, from the habits of a lifetime, waited for their husbands to tease them out of their fears.
"Lord, turn me over!" cried the husbands, as the martyr San Lorenzo was supposed to have screamed from his agony on the hot griddle. "Cook me on the other side!"
Nervous joking, because it was the kind of heat wave which made the most sensible people think about doom. Even Joseph Santangelo began to wonder how his life would change if it just got hotter and hotter, and no one ever bought sausage again.
The night that Joseph won his wife at pinochle was the final night of the feast of San Gennaro. But for the first time that anyone could remember, it was too hot to celebrate. All week, the cotton candy had refused to spin. Giant ice blocks melted into lukewarm puddles for the beer kegs. At the start of the feast, crowds gathered near the ferris wheel to see if its turning might stir up a breeze; but the rickety wheel revolved in slow motion, and up in the high cars children could be seen getting sick from swinging in the heat. One by one, the food stands closed for lack of business; among the first to go was the sausage concession run by Joseph Santangelo and his mother.
And so it happened that Joseph was free to play cards.
That night, every light in the sausage shop was blazing, and the smell of blood clung to the damp sawdust. Yet there was no meat, no sausage to be seen, and the cases had been empty for so long that the place had the ghostly air of aruin-precipitously abandoned, unchanged. Except for the four men drinking and playing cards, it could have been the butcher shop at Pompeii.
Among the relics of this lost time was a growing collection of empty wine bottles. By ten o'clock, six bottles had circled the table and fallen, as if passed out, on the floor. By that time, the four players were approaching the same condition, but some were closer to it than others ...
The setting is New York's Little Italy in the 1950s -- a community closely knit by gossip and tradition. This is the story of an extraordinary family, the Santangelos. There is Joseph, the butcher, who cheats in his shop and at pinochle, only to find the deck is stacked against him; his mother, Mrs. Santangelo, who sees the evil eye everywhere and who calls on her saints; and Catherine, his wife, whose determination to raise a modern daughter leads her to confront ancient questions. Finally, there is Theresa, Joseph and Catherine's daughter, whose astonishing discovery of purpose moves the book toward its unpredictable conclusion.
Set in New York's Little Italy in the 1950s--a community closely knit by gossip and tradition--this is the story of an extraordinary family, the Santangelos. "[Prose] writes equally well about sausages and saints, documenting the madness and the grace of God in everyday life."--Jean Strouse, "Newsweek."
About the Author
Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director's Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent book is Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. She lives in New York City.