The Italian American Reader: A Collection of Outstanding Fiction, Memoirs, Journalism, Essays, and Poetry
A review by Michael J. Agovino
Full disclosure: I know Bill Tonelli, the editor of The Italian American
Reader, a comprehensive and long overdue new anthology. We worked together
at Esquire magazine, sometimes getting along, other times not (and when
Italians are not getting along they usually stop talking to each other, which
we didn't). Tonelli also had the nerve to leave me out of this glorious, affirming
three-dimensional collection. The balls on him. To be fair, his book closed
before my piece about my father came out in GQ last year. (Or that's what he
tells me.) But, it must be said, Tonelli has done a great thing for the Italian-American
community (if you can call us that) and to anyone who's interested in the immigrant
experience and how it vanishes, sadly and triumphantly. And, better still, for
anyone who just plain likes to read quality stuff.
He's gathered works by near-beacons like John
Fante and Pietro
di Donato, and contemporary works by Don
Barolini and Mike
Paterniti, among others, to take a group that's been — what's the word?
— minstrelized in popular culture and has made them, us, smart, literary, abstract,
stylized, writerly, intellectual. Who knew?
Admit it: These are not the words that come to mind when you think of this
ethnic group. (Racist, provincial, misogynistic, homophobic, maybe.) Thank TV
and movies: Vinny Barbarino, Tony Manero (Travolta's exacta), Tony Banta and
that other moronic houseboy Tony Danza played, Rocky, Carla, and Raymond (couldn't
they at least have made him a movie critic rather than a sportswriter?). And,
unbelievably, three new shows (and this in the post-Sopranos din): Mafia
Doctor on CBS, about a surgeon who moonlights as a mobster; the ABC reality
show The Family, detailing the Machiavellian doings of an embarrassing
lot; and ABC Family Channel's My Life Is a Sitcom, in which the producers
combed the country for the endearing, but ill-educated, Zaccagnino sisters,
among the favorites.
Everyone knew our gangsters (real and fictional), our Rockys (real and fictional),
and our singers and actors. But our thinkers, our writers, our poets? So Tonelli
— pro-Sopranos, ironically — had the chutzpah to do something about
it. Tonelli, who authored the clever memoir-cum-road-book The
Amazing Story of the Tonelli Family in America, back in 1994 (overlooked
by critics, now that I think about it), divided the collection into 10 workable
sections: home; Mom; sex, love and good looks; food; pop; death; work; God;
each other; everybody else.
The anthology begins — after a wise, roisterous forward by Nick
Tosches — with none other than the postmodern DiMaggio: Don DeLillo, the
hero of every Italian geek, from his opus-ish Underworld.
That was a first for DeLillo: After having mined various dystopias in 10 novels
(and two plays) he wrote for the first time about his hometown, the Bronx, and
a character named Bronzini. (A DeLillo footnote: A very smart, hip woman I went
to college with once pronounced his name DeYEEyo, as if it were a Spanish name.
She was Filipina, maybe that was why. I continued to pronounce it DeLillo, and
she, louder each time, would say DeYEEyo, until I told her, to her amazement,
that he was Italian not Latino.) Other highlights abound: A hilarious and heartbreaking
bit from the lit critic
Frank Lentricchia, himself a DeLillo scholar; raunchy and regal verse by
Addonizio; an excerpt from Tosches' fine, and forgotten, novel Cut
Numbers (where was the movie deal on that one?); a beautiful short story,
published in the Atlantic Monthly, by Ralph
Lombreglia; a brilliant essay on fashion and Italianness by Maria
Laurino whose memoir Were
You Always an Italian? slipped under the radar a couple of years ago; and
a bold piece of writing by a young guy named John D'Agata, who began rethinking
the essay form and pulled off minor miracles in his 2001 book Halls
of Fame, another that escaped review. On and on.
Of course, in a collection this big, there's room to squabble. Many (like me!)
may have felt left out. The inclusion of Victoria
Gotti is too cute by half, though her father, god bless him, was totally
railroaded, and her Uncle Peter is a good man — just look at that sweet face.
Lupica may have published novels but he's still a sports hack, and Ray Romano,
who plays a sports hack, is no Calvino. And why use Paterniti's brilliant Esquire
piece on Francois Mitterrand's last supper and not his equally brilliant Esquire
piece on his Sicilian grandfather? Deadlines, maybe.
Tonelli's introduction, too, is alive, irreverent, surprising, yet another
highlight of the book. He makes the point that not all the pieces are about
"being Italian." Just as well. Tonelli then delves into the question
Gay Talese posed in the New York Times Book Review 10 years ago: Where
are the Italian-American novelists? (Italians, unlike those groups they have
most in common with — Jews, with the Oedipal complex; Irish, with the Catholicism;
Latinos, with the Madonna thing; and African-Americans, with defying "the
man" — lag behind when it comes to literary accomplishment. My words,
not Tonelli's or Talese's.) He poses some worthy explanations. Not airing our
dirty laundry, for one, seems spot on. Hence no Italo Roth, which would seem
like a natural. But in the last 10 years not much has changed, or if it has
it's changing at a pace as slow as the stirring of the Sunday sauce. Forget
Roth, where's our Jonathan
Safran Foer? Or Aimee
Bender? Or Ernesto
Quinonez? Or Toure?
Diaz? Even Mario
Puzo's Godfather sequel — as if we needed one — went to Mark Winegardner,
half-Irish, half-German. (What, Tom Hagen's gonna write the family history now?)
But what, I wanted to ask Tonelli — if we were talking — about the dearth
of Italian-American editors? Look at the top literary magazines, and by
that I mean quality magazines, where pieces are turned into book deals, and
later movie deals, which gives writers something they're usually desperate
for — real money that allows them to continue writing full-time. Look at
their mastheads: There are very few Italian names, less than a handful, at
the level of either senior editor or senior writer or above. (Not art or
photo or ad sales, but in editorial.) Tonelli intimates the importance of
ethnocentrism, how he was astounded, proud, inspired by seeing an Italian
name in his local Philadelphia newspaper when he was a kid. But it can't be
Tonelli could have kept writing, I'm sure, but the anthology is the main event,
a lush, smart tome, something to dip in and out of, or pore over. It gives the
ones portrayed as meatballs an intellectual ballast. He's taken off the wife-beater
(guinea T's, impossibly, to some) and replaced it with, if not a buttoned-down
Oxford, then something else, something finely tailored by us. One can only hope
for a Volume II — and sooner rather than later. And if Tonelli leaves me out
this time, we're not talking again. Seriously.
Michael J. Agovino is an editor at Newsweek. He's written for GQ, Esquire,
the New York Times, and many other publications. His work will be included
in Best American Sports Writing 2003.