Friday, March 22, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 18

Rita Ciresi on Tony Ardizzone's THE EVENING NEWS

"More Than The Evening News"

The year that Tony Ardizzone's The Evening News was published, I was a first-year student in the MFA program at Penn State. My knowledge of contemporary short fiction consisted of the following: there were the stories printed in The New Yorker, which were all about yuppies summering in Nantucket, yuppies wearing designer clothes and doing designer drugs, and yuppies in an endless quest for the perfect piece of real estate. And then there were stories written by Raymond Carver, about down-and-outers swilling too much whiskey, waiting on tables and driving trucks, and worrying about paying the rent.

Needless to say, I identified much more strongly with the world of Carver. After all, I had grown up in a declining working-class neighborhood in Connecticut. My quest to better myself by going to college and grad school had driven me into such a deep grave of debt that every Saturday I stood in the Whiteway Super Market, lifting items in and out of my shopping cart because I had only fifteen dollars tops to spend on groceries each week.

Although every other MFA student I knew professed admiration for Carver, our conversations about contemporary writing always turned back to The New Yorker. Which lucky author had a story in its coveted pages this week? Each time I lifted the latest issue off the rack at the Fred Pattee Library and turned to the fiction offering, my heart would sink.

You see, I did not want to write about yuppies. Or drugs. Or real estate. I wanted to write about where I came from, which was a litter-strewn, once exclusively Italian neighborhood that rapidly was "going bad." I wanted to write about girls named Angelina and Donna and boys named Vinnie and Frankie. I wanted to write about nuns and priests and shoemakers and bakers. But who would be interested in publishing that?

The Flannery O'Connor Award in Short Fiction provided me with the answer. One Saturday afternoon after replacing The New Yorker on the rack, I wandered over to the new books section in Pattee Library. And there I found a thin volume of short stories. On its drab gray cover: dark buildings, telephone wires, a dim streetlight. Although the title—The Evening News—intrigued me, I found myself even more intrigued by the author's last name. Ardizzone? Aha! At last: A writer whose last name probably would get misspelled even more often than mine.

I remember taking The Evening News into a secluded corner of the library and finding within its pages characters named Gino and Mrs. Bagnola and Sister Immaculata. Not all of them were Italian. But they all were something: Irish, Polish, Lithuanian. They went to church! And shopped at the local market. They fought on the playground. And watched TV. They lived the way I wanted my characters to live. And Tony Ardizzone wrote the kind of simple, character-driven, dialogue-rich stories I someday hoped to write.

From that day forward, I stopped looking to The New Yorker to find my literary inspiration (and despair). I began seeking out the work of other authors—Stuart Dybek, Richard Russo—who also dared to write about people who ate cold pizza for breakfast. And I continued to read the work of Tony Ardizzone—from Heart of the Order to In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu to The Whale Chaser—admiring his strong storytelling skills, his ability to describe both the ugly and the beautiful, and his sympathetic view of characters who, although they were not "literary" in the least, still had compelling stories to tell.

I thank the Flannery O'Connor Award in Short Fiction--and Mr. Ardizzone—for giving me that first glimpse of what my own writing life might someday be.

Rita Ciresi is the author of the short story collections MOTHER ROCKET (1993) and Sometimes I Dream in Italian, and the novels Blue Italian, Pink Slip, Remind Me Again Why I Married You, and Bring Back My Body to Me.