Thursday, March 14, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 10

Tony Ardizzone on Salvatore La Puma's THE BOYS OF BENSONHURST

When asked what advice he would give aspiring writers, Chuck Palahniuk, of Fight Club fame, responded, “Have your adventures, make your mistakes, and choose your friends poorly—all these make for great stories.” Had he added, “And be sure to go to Sunday Mass, say the rosary and make novenas, and listen to your mother,” he would have described the basic strategy that Salvatore La Puma uses in his 1987 collection of stories The Boys of Bensonhurst, which received not only the Flannery O’Connor Award but also the American Book Award sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation. Set in the largely Sicilian Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst during the late 1930's and early 1940's, La Puma’s loosely interconnected stories trace the faith, hopes, desires, and mis-adventures of a handful of neighborhood youths, teenaged boys who are on first-name basis with both the parish priest and the corner hoodlum, and who are still under the influence of their immigrant parents (particularly their Sicilian mothers). La Puma infuses the seven stories that make up this lovely collection with a warm, gentle humor and a subtle blend of magical realism that some critics have compared to the work of Gabriel García-Márquez.

In the collection’s first story, “The Gangster’s Ghost,” young Ernesto Foppa is sent down to the basement to fix a blown fuse. Armed with a pair of burning red votive candles his mother keeps next to a statue of the Virgin Mary, Ernesto imagines he sees the face of his dead father, Romero, a petty crook, in the worn silver backing of a mirror on a dresser that stands next to the fuse box. Soon both Ernesto and his mother, Bianca, find themselves making pilgrimages down to the basement with their red candles to visit the ghost and tell him their troubles and seek his advice. Ernesto confesses that he’s been given a chance to make some real money driving a car involved in a robbery, planned by one of his late father’s friends. Romero responds, advising his son not to make the same mistakes he made in life. Bianca tells her husband’s ghost about her loneliness.

“You been a traitor to me,” she says. “Always I was here. Always I took you between my legs. Sometimes you smelled bad. Your beard was rough, but I took it to my breast. But now you don’t come home no more. I hate you. And I love you. So what am I to do?”

Of course Ernesto ignores his father’s words and takes the job, and with perfectly credible and impressively deft turns of plot the story’s consequences resolve both the boy’s and mother’s concerns. As with all strong fiction, La Puma’s short stories end with a delightful blend of inevitability mixed with just the right amount of surprise.

La Puma’s boys are hardly saints, though they often strive to be one. His characters never devolve into caricatures. “The Mouthpiece” focuses on a boy named Guido, who speaks for his hearing-impaired parents, Alfredo and Sabatina, whose tongues are “as pickled as pork tongues in a jar.” Guido desires to become a priest and, even though he clearly doesn’t have a vocation he obsessively prays for one. A friend, Tonino, puts his plight into perspective. “You’re an idiot,” says Tonino. “You ain’t never going to get laid. You poor bastard. Means I get yours too.”

In “The Jilted Groom,” Carmine Carmellini, who “inherited the looks of the eleventh-century Norman invaders of Sicily, Viking eyes and hair which made blue and yellow sparks in the bold Arab eyes of New Utrecht High’s Sicilian girls,” is blessed with a magnificent singing voice that makes all the girls in his high school swoon. “You could sing Verdi at the Met,” one classmate tells him. Another girl, Julia Albanesi, is also sweet on him. In two sentences that illustrate La Puma’s playful wit along with his skill with metaphor, he describes their physical relationship.

“Julia gave him [Carmine] her saucy red kisses, but he resisted the cookies under her clothes. He wanted to be in the chorus of angels eventually, and not a roasting chestnut.”

The collection’s title story has the Brooklyn boys venturing out into the larger world and features a guardian angel. “The angel whispering in Frankie’s ear warned him to be careful going to New Jersey, but he said ‘Scram’ to the pest, which the other guys thought might be a fly, and they all went up from the BMT subway to Times Square, where lights on billboards, movie houses, restaurants, and shops blinked nervously, and where even the scrounging pigeons were hemmed in.”

It should be obvious that I’m an avid fan of The Boys of Bensonhurst, not only for its rich and engaging cast of characters but also for La Puma’s exquisite use of language, his marvelous, spot-on dialogue, and his impressively clean narrative restraint. The writing in all seven of his stories rings with the truest tones of authenticity, of having been there. Born in 1929, La Puma was born and raised in Bensonhurst, served as a medic in the Korean War, and later moved to California. The Boys of Bensonhurst was published when he was 58. Before his death in 2008 he wrote and published two more books, the novel A Time for Wedding Cake, and a second short story collection titled Teaching Angels to Fly.

In one of the essays collected in Mysteries and Manners, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.”

Read The Boys of Bensonhurst. La Puma’s stories will charm and delight you.

Tony Ardizzone is the author of THE EVENING NEWS (1986). He is the author of eight books, including the novel The Whale Chaser and the story collection The Calling of Saint Matthew: Stories of Rome. He has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Pushcart Prize, the Milkweed Editions National Fiction Prize, the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Fiction sponsored by the Friends of Literature, and the Virginia Prize for Fiction, among other honors. Ardizzone was born and raised on the North Side of Chicago.