Saturday, December 24, 2011

What Ever Happened to Francis Pollini?

The first book by Francis Pollini I ever saw was a copy of Night in its Olympia Press Traveller’s Companion edition – those intriguing green paperbacks that always seem to hold the promise of great writing, a slap of European gravitas, and a tickle of something naughty.  The copy was in a used bookstore notorious for its creepy, Grinch-like owner (my husband once heard him order out of his store an old lady who, in the voice of a gentle lunatic, asked him if he’d enjoyed her Christmas cards) as well as for the promiscuity of its prices.  That copy of Night was $20, and when I opened up the book to look at it, its forty-year-old British spine went crack!   

For years that was the only copy of Night I’d held in my hands, and the book’s obscurity made it all the more alluring.  Who was this Francis Pollini, with his Italian surname and all?  I knew that a lot of Olympia Press writers, whether writing erotica or “legit” literature, published under pen names, but the name didn’t sound made up in the way that, say, Akbar del Piombo did.  When I finally took home a copy of Night, its author information page was brief but promising:  Pollini was born in 1930 in Pennsylvania; he went to Penn State; he served in the Air Force; and since Night was published in Paris in 1960, he “has written two further major novels, Glover and Excursion.”  Further major novels, wot?  Even on the all-gathering web, there was – and still is – not so much ready information about Pollini.  Who was this fellow, and why did he fall off the map? 
Night is set during the Korean War, after a group of American soldiers has surrendered to the Chinese and is marched into a POW camp.  Narrated, mostly, from the point of view of a Sergeant Marty Landi in close third-person – and intercut with italicized passages of interior monologue – the book follows Landi in his descent down the rabbit hole from resistant “reactionary” to dehumanized shell (and, perhaps, wretched informer).  Through sleep deprivation, constant fear, and subtle, nerve-racking interrogation mostly under the watchful, oddly kind eyes of a Communist officer named Ching, an elegant, polished man who speaks flawless English and who talks to Marty like a bright pupil who unfortunately doesn’t “work to ability,” Landi is broken down, and brainwashed (indeed, when the book was reissued by Houghton Mifflin it was subtitled A truthful novel about the nightmare called brainwashing).  There are situations that play out because of the differing degrees of indoctrination among the POWs; there are several episodes of outright violence; there are well-rendered pieces of dialogue using period-specific Commie jargon, sometimes with handfuls of POWs spewing it back, and some little comedy in a few Chinese characters talking like ESL students; but the trajectory of Marty’s disintegrating mind is pretty much the total scope of the book, and there’s virtually nothing resembling a subplot.  

 Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

The book begins with staccato, short-sentence narration, very limited description, and punchy, terse dialogue much like war movies of a certain era, but without the helpful visual cues that let the reader know what’s going on.  This shouldn’t be a liability; I love being thrown into a narrative and having to look sharp to assemble the story. (One of my favorite novels of the last few years, and perhaps of my lifetime, is David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, a book also shadowed by war, which begins with random voices in a contextless dark, and requires the reader to “work.”  To the End of the Land is so great a novel that it frustrates the ability to properly praise it – a problem that the axe-grinding writer of this uncharacteristically obtuse review in the NYRB obviously didn’t have.)  One expects such a narrative to open out from its cryptic beginning, and give the reader something she can hang onto, but I’m not sure that Night ever really does.  Once the book finds its feet, those feet just shuffle along. 

There’s almost no scene-setting, little description, and no real “effects” in Night, no high highs and no low lows, just sensation rendered for the most part with a unspecific, hazy numbness.  It’s as if you’re reading the book through a fuzzy pinhole (Night is at least perfectly titled).  It’s a strange little hermetic document, a novel drained of all color and most every referent that would give it life.  On the surface, this sort of claustrophobia might be compelling in the way that the existential fictions we read in our teens were, especially given that Night takes place in a prison camp.  Instead, since the reader catches on pretty quickly that we’re slouching toward the inevitable brainwashing and/or betrayal, and because this is forever hanging in the close air of the book, there’s very little drama in the narrative.  There’s a feeling of static sameness to the proceedings.  The endless cat-and-mouse interrogation scenes between Ching and Marty are rendered very well and I think they’re the most compelling things about the book, but because there are so many of them and they’re so repetitious, any power they have at first has been shot to hell by the end of the book. 

A huge problem with Night, I think, is its voice.  Because of the lack of tags and description, the reader spends too many early pages not sure whose close third-person narration she’s following.  Much worse, the point of view speedily breaks its own rules, leaving Marty and roving around inside the heads of other POWs.  (Such a thing seems to me a beginning writer’s mistake – and one that, after many clueless years, I’ve hopefully finally rid myself of – and usually comes from spending too much time writing in the first person and not knowing how to answer the dictates of the close third.)  There are little blips of this point-of-view problem at first but by the last third of the book it’s open season, and the particular flaw feels more and more ruinous as we spend time in the mind of another GI, Phillips, and, closer to the end, we zip from POW to POW, most of them just names, a few of them names attached to attitudes (usually noxious, sometimes in an interesting way – more on this later).  It’s as if Pollini got tired of the prolonged claustrophobia of his own book. 

[Throughout Night I found the errors of a young writer who sees the story so clearly in his head that he’s shocked to learn that a reader might find it hard to access.  It’s all there, you moron! the writer wants to shout at her clueless reader, how can you be so dense?  It might be all there, but it’s frustratingly underwrought – which might be a side-effect (just a guess) of being influenced by the kind of lean, “masculine” prose that certain kinds of tough guys of the era wrote, while their chick counterparts nattered on about hairdos, pessaries, and Mary Quant.  A great writing teacher I once had would often use the phrase, of an imperfectly realized piece of writing, “It needs more dreaming.”  In this case, what we need here is less dreaming, and more articulation – more signposts, and more awareness that no matter the form or the style, one of the writer’s duties, as grating as this might be, is to communicate.]

New English Library, 1970.

I mentioned the italicized passages of the book.  These are usually flashbacks, sometimes of simple, fond memories, more often of miseries and self-flagellations, which Marty has while under interrogation; in them is much of Marty’s back-story, the thing that should get us to care about him.  It’s the soup of his unconscious being stirred around and ladled up, and some of the passages are compelling – but, again, they’re too disconnected to add up.  In the delirium of some of these passages I read the delirium of the writer trapped at his desk watching himself as he is engaged in the act of writing…and allowing himself to flip out and free associate, because he can.  This kind of writing is usually more fun to write than to read. 

During the course of the many interrogations, Ching’s refrain remains the same:  You must confess.  Confess to what?  The command acts on Marty’s (Catholic) guilt over, it would seem, his lusting after his mother (and perhaps sister and/or girlfriend), and also perhaps over his mother’s death, over wishing his father dead, or over any one of a score of other self-lacerating episodes stirred up in the soup of Marty’s head under interrogation.  Late in the book, this free-floating confession finally finds its object – Ching wants to know the identity of the POW responsible for leading raids on the indoctrinated Americans and killing seven men, among them one of his favorites, a lick-spittle named Slater.  (Slater represents the worst of the POWs – those who “happily” capitulate, whereas the man leading the raids, Phillips, perhaps represents the most impossibly noble – he’s an old-school tough guy, notably a WWII vet, who will go down fighting.)  Marty is caught in the middle – he doesn’t want to give in to the indoctrination, nor does he want to join the murderous raids on the “Progressives”; he only wants to come out of the war alive.  

Though it’s not exactly clear, it would seem that Marty finally does “confess” to Ching, and in a very specific way.  In the penultimate scene of the book, Marty’s been given warm clothing and fuel – things promised to those who give in – and he’s been reduced to the state of a zombie, “his eyes fixing on something, on one thing, the inner dead thing.”  As Marty stumbles around in his reduced world, the new leader of the “Progressives,” flanked by Chinese soldiers and in an atmosphere of great fanfare, crosses a field to the huts of the “Reactionaries.”  He is carrying a round package, and he unwraps it…

…not completely, just enough so that in the next instant, when his arm moved, sending it rolling, tumbling towards them, it easily discarded its wrapping, and he was laughing, shrieking, and they were following it, all of them, absolutely still and silent, watching it come to rest, finally some two or three yards from them, before them….

It was Phillips’ head.

This should have been an amazing scene but, frustratingly, for this reader it had no power at all.  The logistics were confusing, the language flat, and the narrative leading up to it had already broken apart into its multiple, prodigal points-of-view so that all suspense had been squandered, and I might as well have been reading a recipe for applesauce.  Ultimately I was left thinking that the author shouldn’t have named that character “Phillips,” because the possessive apostrophe on a word ending in S is almost invariably awkward. 

Which leaves us with the book’s short epilogue.  Marty has come “safely” home only to swim out into the ocean one drunken evening and, it would seem, drown himself in the water.  In this one sees the ultimate absurdity of self-protection in the face of an evil too huge for one flawed man to bear.  The evil is war; the evil is a corrupt society – and by this Pollini seems to be indicting both the U.S. and Communist China/North Korea; and, ultimately, the evil is Marty’s own personal demons.  Unfortunately, there’s no drama in Marty’s drowning scene either.  In David Seed’s Brainwashing: The Fictions of Mind Control: A Study of Novels and Films Since World War II, which has an excellent passage on Night, he writes that the epilogue is “…curiously featureless; it is as if [Landi] has not regained any purchase on his home country.  As a result of this ideological and psychological displacement, Landi’s suicidal walk into a black void only actualizes a mental process that has already taken place.”   

Seed also writes “Pollini could not place the novel initially with any U.S. publisher, partly because of its sexually explicit language and partly because ‘the setting was not very comfortable to American readers,’” (this last phrase is Pollini’s).  There’s a long-enduring, totally crummy discourse that holds that Americans soldiers in Korea weren’t made of the same strong stuff that, say, WWII soldiers were, and that most POWs capitulated (which was not the case).  In this very interesting article, Missing action: POW films, brainwashing and the Korean War, 1954-1968, Charles Young writes about what may have helped drive this misperception:  

The attention put on POWs was due in part to the wider Korean stalemate which threw into question the resolve of the entire nation. America’s inability to prevail was transferred to the prisoners’ failure to do the same. We may have betrayed the POWs in Vietnam, but, in Korea, they betrayed us. The hypersensitivity over prisoner performance contrasts with World War II, where victory made introspection unnecessary.

Maybe because of the lack of a grand rah-rah finale, the Korean War is also known as the Forgotten War.  You’ll find no photos of sailors kissing nurses in Times Square when the cease-fire was signed in 1953.  Korean vets were in some cases shunned, as is related in this brief article about a lecture given just this year by historian James Wright, during which he “recounted the story of a Korean War veteran who was denied entrance to his upstate New York Veterans of Foreign Wars club because ‘he was not a veteran of what they called a war.’”  But this seems to be all of a piece with the almost routinely deplorable way vets get treated in this country – might as well just hit a person in the head with a teargas canister. 

The article also talks about how because of the lack of greater reflection on the war – “national indifference” – this country has “failed to learn essential lessons that would have been applicable to contemporary wars,” from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq.  The Korean War probably lives largest in this country’s consciousness as a backdrop for the TV show M*A*S*H. 

To return briefly to Night, it was a big relief to me that the book pretty much steers clear of racist slurs.  There are moments but, given the severity of the circumstances, they are mild.  There seems to be more rancor directed at the unseen Koreans than at the Chinese captors (perhaps because, from what I’ve read, Korean solders were more often guilty of war atrocities than the Chinese?).  I also fell to wondering if Pollini’s own experience of growing up the child of immigrants in coal country, Pennsylvania might have made him, let’s say, sensitive to name-calling.  Interestingly, the most racist character in the book, who Pollini names Willy Coughlin (shades of the fascist-lovin’ Father?) and whose racism comes out toward Black Americans, appears to be among those most easily indoctrinated by the Commies.  This would have been a fascinating angle to explore.  Similarly, I also wanted to hear more about Landi’s specific strain of Italian-Americanness.  We get tiny bits of this, such as when Landi, phasing in and out of reality during a late interrogation scene, thinks of how his mother had only learned “a few English words,” and of: 

The town on the hilltop, far away, in her own, true land, which had sustained her, which she had sustained, vividly, intact, within her.  That ancient cluster of buildings… He wanted to touch her hand…  She had never left it… to see what it felt like to see… The new country, the new life, become just a horrible nightmare, from which one glorious day, she would waken…oh God of the past…o Dio del passato… Closer he came.

However, frustratingly, like so many other snippet-like episodes in the book, these things are there and then they’re gone, washed over by the river of sameness that is the narrative.

John Calder, Ltd., 1961.

I wondered, finishing this book, what is the author writing toward?  If I believed this was his experience (which I somehow do not) would I be more taken with it?  What are his other books like?  There’s so much promise in Night, which was Pollini’s first book, and so little satisfaction delivered.  It’s one of those books that, if you were to go back and start reading it again, it would probably be much more clear and maybe incrementally more compelling the second time around.  And you could go back and read it again; or, gentle reader, you could read something else. 

You could, in fact, hunt up another one of Pollini’s books, such as the signed copy of Dubonnet that I found at the Strand for eight bucks.  Which is what I’ll write about next time.

Finally, for no good reason, here’s a clip of Joan Sutherland singing Addio del passato.  I’m more of a La Divina fan, but La Stupenda was my mother’s favorite soprano.  Enjoy!   

Sunday, April 10, 2011


So I was at another PEN event in January with my great friend Ken who introduced me to his friend Richard who asked me, who remembers why, if I knew the writer Nunzio Pernicone.  How funny, I said, not personally but I had his book Italian Anarchism 1864 – 1892 and I’d been thinking of writing about it.  He said Pernicone had once posed a question to him:  What happened to all the Italian-American radicals?  And then Professor Pernicone answered his own question:  They married all those nice Catholic girls who (I’m paraphrasing here) whupped the radical right out of them.   

You find this theory expressed a bit more formally in Pernicone’s engrossing and well-researched biography of Carlo Tresca: 

Despite acquiring some new blood during the interwar period, the Italian-American resistance undoubtedly lost more adherents than it gained.  The primary reason was the failure of the sovversivi [“subversives”] to produce a second generation large enough to replace the departed…. The offspring of the sovversivi were generally more assimilated into American society than their parents, accepting American values and rejecting the ideas and principles of their elders.  Political and cultural discontinuity between parents and children was also a function of the disproportionate number of male to female radicals, a deficiency fatal to the movement because marital unions generally occurred between a radical father and a non-radical mother, who raised the children Catholic and conservative. (138)

Tresca – agitator, journalist, humanist, anti-Fascist – is a thrilling subject, and Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel is filled with great stories of his fearlessness, pluck, unique charisma, and commitment to fighting the good fight, which he did right up until the moment he was shot to death in the street on January 11th, 1943.  

Before we get to the good stuff, however, it must be said that as a lover and a partner, Tresca was a rat.  He cheated quickly and robustly on his long-suffering wife Helga – four years into his marriage he was caught in flagrante delicto with a girl under sixteen at a hotel in Philadelphia – and he ran around on his long-term lover, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (IWW leader, later CP member, and famous inspiration for Joe Hill’s song Rebel Girl).  Tresca went so far as to cheat on Flynn with her own sister, and father a child with her; and for this son and the daughter he had with Helga he rarely paid any kind of child support.  Even when he was an old fat guy looking a lot like the Burl Ives Claymation character in the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, Tresca somehow managed to keep cheating on his last lover, Margaret de Silver who, reportedly, found his alliances “amusing” (246). 

While I was reading the Tresca biography I happened to also be reading Jacques d’Amboise’s delicious autobiography I Was A Dancer (which as a piece of writing is a spotty taped-together thing but, really, who cares – because his heart is so joyful and his love of dance and life so great that you want to fly with him anywhere), and I was amazed by the fact that d’Amboise, deeply Catholic, was a virgin when he married and seems to have been a good father and faithful husband throughout the course of his fifty-plus-year marriage.  Something about the contrast between the subjects of these two books made me think: well, who can blame these nice Catholic girls for wanting to corral their husbands?  On a purely practical level (bear with me, friends, while I go out on a retrograde limb here), if it’ll keep the guy home, why not beat some Jesus into your partner?  After all, it’s the woman who gets stuck with the babies.

 Pity the woman who tries to whup some sense into this man.

Reading this biography took me back to when I was all over radical histories and biographies such as The Autobiography of Mother Jones, Alexander Berkman’s Life of an Anarchist, Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Labor’s Untold Story, We Shall Be All, The People’s History of the United States (both of which I confess I’ve never finished) and what’s probably my favorite, Emma Goldman’s wonderful Living My Life, which I later gave to a cousin of mine who greeted it with a resounding Duh! What is this stupid book?, which hurt my tender cousin-feelings deeply.  This cousin later apologized, and I understand she’s now at a Buddhist retreat in Vermont so who says people have to remain assholes all their lives?  Anyway, I realized in reading Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel that I got away from books like these because nostalgia for the glorious radical past was starting to suffocate me – and it only made the present feel even more flabby and ill-prioritized.  I mean, what does it say about how New York has changed to know that the headquarters of the IWW and the offices of Tresca’s paper Il Martello were once at 94 Fifth Avenue?  Half a block north, on the corner where Tresca was murdered, today there is a Bebe store.

Indeed, based on addresses in the book – even those of the many offices of Il Martello alone – one could do a self-guided radical walking tour of Manhattan, only to shake one’s head sadly over what was there and what’s there now. 

Bryant Hall, meeting place for the International Hotel Workers’ Union, during their 1912 – 1913 strike.  “On the afternoon of January 24, guards hired by the Hotel Men’s Association were pelting Bryant Hall with rocks from the elevated train station on Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street.  Hundreds of strikers poured out into the street ready to battle any adversary” (63).  Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was clubbed by cops and Tresca arrested in the melee. Today, an ugly green-glass corporate tower housing the likes of MetLife and Verizon stands on the site. Photo from the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council’s website. 

As I said, this book is incredibly well-researched, though at times it almost gets bogged down in minutiae (though I do love minutiae – in a footnote one reads that Professor Pernicone’s own father, Salvatore, produced, directed, and acted in Tresca’s play, L’attentato a Mussolini, a “surprisingly good political satire”) (167).  The book led me to Max Eastman’s two-part profile of Tresca in the New Yorker from September 1934, which I read online, and I have to say it was a little disheartening to read something written in that sort of gently amused old-school New Yorker tone – which tends to survive only, thank goodness, in things like especially twee “Talk of the Town” pieces – applied to what I consider a serious subject.  Worse than this, Eastman delighted in reproducing Tresca’s “colorful” English in funny, funny little bits so that by the end I felt like I’d read a profile of Father Guido Sarducci.

 Not Carlo Tresca.

To get back to the book at hand – it’s when Pernicone turns his focus on larger currents in the Italian-American and radical communities during Tresca’s lifetime that the book really fascinated me.  For instance, I’d always wondered how many Italians in this country were pro-Mussolini back in the day, and this is the first book I’ve read that addresses the question.  The findings are dismal:  Pernicone quotes Gaetano Salvemini as estimating that, among the Italian-American community, 10% were anti-Fascist, 5% “out-and-out” Fascist, 35% philo-Fascist, and 50% apolitical.  He goes on to say that Salvemini was providing these estimates in 1940, “anticipating war between Italy and the United States; his inclination was to present Italian-Americans in as favorable a light as possible lest they suffer persecution as supporters of the enemy”:
In reality, among the “apolitical” mass of first generation immigrants and their children, respect, admiration, and even veneration of Mussolini (as opposed to Fascism per se) was exceptionally strong and widespread. (128)

Pernicone provides possible explanations for the embrace of Fascism by the immigrant community:  after years of discrimination and economic exploitation, they finally had a strongman who could prove their detractors wrong.  “Disappointment and resentment fostered among many elements – especially middle and lower-middle-class Italian Americans – a ‘nostalgic nationalism,’ which was easily transmuted into an aggressive proto-fascist form of nationalism” (127).  He then talks about the network of fasci, or Fascist squads, organized in the U.S, the first dating back to 1921, a year before Mussolini’s rise to power.  I was frankly amazed to read how widespread these fasci were, and how many prominenti (prominent Italian-Americans citizens) were in on the game.  My maternal grandfather, his brother, and their families left Italy in the late 1920s to escape the rising tide of Fascism – my grandfather, Marino Auriti, really was one of those men who was forced to drink castor oil in the streets by Blackshirt goon squads – so I think I had some fool notion that Italian-American support of Fascism was limited to a few random kooks or certain kinds of sentimental, uneducated people.  Such as the families of some girls I went to high school with, who had pictures of Il Duce up in their kitchens, this in the 1980s. 

It’s Tresca’s unwavering fight against Fascism that really makes him a hero, and these chapters in the biography are thrilling to read.  Tresca was the main man among anti-Fascists in the U.S. in the ’20s, putting Il Martello “at the disposal of many prominent radicals who lacked publication outlets” (136), helping raise money for victims of Fascism, harassing Fascist dignitaries and local fasci, and generally sticking his neck out for the cause: 

Directly or in collusion with American authorities, Mussolini’s official representatives and local disciples caused Tresca to suffer periodic harassment, several arrests, loss of his Italians citizenship, a four-month prison term, a narrow escape from deportation, destruction of his property, and a bomb attempt on his life.  But Tresca never relented. (135)

And he really was fearless:  maybe having been arrested and beaten up so many times – he was even slashed across the throat by a razor-wielding Mano Nera thug in Pittsburgh back in his early labor-organizer days – made Tresca immune to intimidation.  He stood up to every threat.  One example among many:  in 1926, Fascio Mario Sonzini, a group in the Bronx – which was “the borough where the Blackshirts had achieved their greatest gains…especially the Arthur Avenue section” (170) – sent goon squads to roam the neighborhood, “beating up known anti-Fascists whenever they encountered them singly or in groups of two or three” (171).  They issued a public challenge for anti-Fascists to set foot in the borough, and “Tresca and Vidali [CP member who later turned into a full-throttle Stalinist assassin] received a special warning promising death should they venture north of Manhattan.”  Tresca, Vidali, and a group of comrades got right up there, baiting the Fascists by “strolling past known fascist haunts, eating ice cream and singing ‘Bandiera Rossa.’” Later, as up to 2,500 anti-Fascists massed, Tresca and others spoke to the crowd and demonstrators marched past Fascio Mario Sonzini, singing songs and challenging the Fascists to come out:  “Wisely, not a single Blackshirt showed his face…” (171). 

I think of other books about the Fascist era – such as Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings, a book beloved by me – and the beautifully drawn image of Ginzburg’s father running laughing through the streets of Rome while bombs burst over his head (I gave my copy to my niece years ago, so I’m writing this from memory).  I think of the kind of beautiful glee that comes over you when you know you’re on the side of the just, even if it might cost you your life. 

Another fascinating topic given a lot of discussion in the book is the behavior of the Communist Party in America.  Easy to say from my perspective many years down the line, but I always wondered how these benighted folks, some so well-intentioned, kept their blinders on for as long as they did.  I well remember late 1991, when the Soviet Union was finally unraveling, sitting with my then-boyfriend in his parents’ boishy apartment as his grandma, born in 1907 and an old CP member from waaaay back, came shuffling through the door.  Well, she said, terrible things are happening in the Soviet Union.  We paused over our morning tartine-and-New York Times routine.  I don’t know what all the celebration is about, she said.  We said something vague, she looked at us, and then old Doris shuffled on out again, shaking her head at our shameful ignorance.

If only to be reminded of how many murderous Stalinist thugs were running around with ice-picks back in the day and how sheep-like the behavior of so many CP members were, chapters like “Taking on the Stalinists” are well worth reading.  Tresca was immediately suspicious of the Popular Front.  “As an anarchist, Tresca rejected electoral alliances of any kind, but he might not have opposed the Popular Front if it were a true ‘united front’ of anti-Fascists functioning as equals….but a united front dominated by a partnership between communist and socialist parties essentially serving the foreign policy interests of the Soviet Union was unacceptable to him” (227).  The chapter talks about the “May Days of Barcelona,” when “elements of the communist Partido Obrero Unificat de Catalunya and Catalonian government police” murdered some 500 anarchist and Marxist dissidents, among them much-loved anarchist and Matteotti Battalion co-founder Camillo Berneri, who was brutally gunned down in the street. 

Back in New York, Juliet Stuart Poyntz (nĂ©e Points, Barnard class of ’07; I’d just read the article “Undercovers” about her in the Fall 2010 edition of the usually quite boring alumnae magazine), a prominent member of the American CP, confided in Tresca her disillusionment with the Soviet Union after returning from a visit there in 1936, during which time she observed first-hand some of the show trials.  “Although they differed politically, Tresca and Poyntz had been personal friends for more than twenty years, and he became fearful for her safety” (232).  Shortly afterward, Poyntz vanished without a trace. 

Tresca pointed the finger at a member of the CP, telling his story to the New York Times and testifying before a grand jury.  The Communist press attacked him from all sides, calling his story “‘an anti-Soviet cock-and-bull story…and a tissue of lies’” (233).  Even Vito Marcantonio, who is supposed to have been a good guy, got into the act, saying Tresca was “‘completely discredited in the eyes of the population of New York’” (234).  The anarchist paper L’Adunata – which had a long-running beef with Tresca, perhaps on an I’m-a-cooler-anarchist-than-you-are level – jumped on the bandwagon, denouncing Tresca as a spy in the pocket of the bourgeois police.  Even Tresca publishing a letter from Emma Goldman supporting his stance did not shut these people up:  “‘It’s a rather disagreeable job to have to apply to a Capitalist court to expose the Stalinist gangsters, [Goldman wrote]. All in all I do not envy your job though I think you should go ahead and expose the disappearance of Miss Poyntz’” (236).  It is of course an article of faith among anarchists that you don’t run to the Man for help, and this seems to have hurt Tresca’s standing more than anything:    

But even Italian anarchists who rejected L’Adunata’s portrayal of Tresca as a “spy” were dismayed by his action in the Poyntz case, for by providing information to the government he had violated a sacred tenet of anarchism.  Many old comrades severed relations with him.  Thus, in the end, the Poyntz case, rather than enhance his reputation as an anti-Stalinist, accelerated the decline of his career. (236).

Because what’s one dead woman when you have a reputation at stake?  Juliet Stuart Poyntz’s disappearance has never been solved.  
Juliet Stuart Poyntz in her Barnard years.

Similarly, Tresca’s own murder has never been solved.  He had a lot of enemies, and all sorts of theories abound – was it a mob hit, a CP hit, a Fascist hit?  Pernicone seems to have studied every single angle, and unpacks each of them in the last chapters of the book.  He arrives at the conclusion that a high-echelon mobster named Frank Garofalo paid a mob thug named Carmen Galante for the hit as payback for a public snub Tresca gave him at an Italian-American fundraising banquet the year before.  There are many subtleties in the theory that I won’t go into, and one can do an internet search of something like “Carlo Tresca, murder” and come up all sorts of theories on all sorts of websites, many of them Mafia-lore sites written by people who go on even longer than I do.

Obviously a labor of love as well as scholarship, Carlo Tresa: Portrait of a Rebel is packed with information – so much so there’s a feeling of something like exhaustion in its final passages, when the book doesn’t end so much as stop.  I think I wanted some kind of summing-up, a bit more of the elegiac – but this is a small quibble.  Oddly, Tresca seems to have foreseen his own death. His two brothers both died of cancer the year before he was killed, and he went around saying goodbye to people in the weeks leading up to his murder.  Two days before he was shot to death, there was a banquet for Tresca, during which he made “what was to be his last public statement”:

“When I see young people who carry on the struggle against Fascism and totalitarianism, then I am glad.  For I know that my life work has not been lost; that the seeds I have sown are bearing fruit.” (271)

  Flowers for Tresca at Fifteenth and Fifth.

On a less somber note, god bless AK Press for publishing books like these, and please get them a proofreader.  Reading this book I was reminded of when, many moons ago, I did some pro bono proofreading for a reprint of a Dwight Macdonald essay that the similarly cash-strapped press Autonomedia was putting out.  I combed over it meticulously and, I have to say, in the published edition, I found no errors – except in the spelling of my own name on the thank you page.  “Thanks also to B.G. Fiarmani…”  No, honey – thank you!

And just to play six degrees of separation, Carlo Tresca’s lover Margaret de Silver was a close friend and benefactor of the late great writer Dawn Powell who was a friend of translator and writer Jacques LeClercq who was the father of peerless NYCB dancer Tanaquil LeClercq who, of course, was partnered by Jacques d’Amboise in many a ballet during the golden Balanchine years.  Here they are dancing Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun in this clip on YouTube.  They take my breath away.

On a final note, and more to the point, I was trying to sum up the particular qualities of Carlo Tresca that made him so beloved by those around him.  The Nation’s Lewis S. Gannett wrote that Tresca “was always lovable…that was the quality that surprised many people, meeting him for the first time, when they had heard only of his fighting quality…he loved people, and people of all kinds responded to his world-embracing smile…” (237).  On the surface, fierceness and kindness seem antithetical qualities to find in one person.  And then I realized, of course – Tresca, an Abruzzese, was truly forte e gentile.  


Sunday, January 30, 2011

George Panetta's Viva Madison Avenue!

Wonderful jacket by Rudi Bass. 

One really wants this book to be the out-of-print gem to email the folks over at New York Review Books about.  OMG, one wants to write, please rush this unjustifiably ignored book back into print!  Sadly, someone else will have to get behind it. 

Can we please have a moratorium on designs for Italian-American-themed 
books that look like food-product packaging?

I first read George Panetta’s fiction in the Italian-American Reader where there’s a sketch called “Suit,” written in an easy colloquial style full of oddball charm.  When the Reader came out, back in 2003, Damian and I went to a reading for it at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square.  What I remember is Nick Tosches, who seemed very grumpy, intoning the word “monotheism” over and over until we were all bleeding from the ears.  And Gay Talese reading from Unto the Sons – elegantly dressed, boring as pudding.  It must be a generational thing.  Don DeLillo was in an Italian-American mood during that time and read from Underworld, with its sections that take place in Belmont, Bronx’s Little Italy, which is full of lovely, watcher-watching-himself-watching textures (“They were playing salugi in the street….Salugi, they cried, that strange word, maybe some corruption of the Italian saluto, maybe a mock salutation – hello, we’ve got your hat, now try and get it back.”) and pitch-perfect dialogue that sounds like many an old G I’ve stood next to at the pork store (“Maybe you heard, Albert.  The hunchback died, that used to carve things out of soap.”).  He brought the house down. 

Just a moment here to dwell on the excellentness of Don DeLillo.  This past October I went to the PEN Awards at the old B. Altman’s with my cugino Ken Gangemi.  Mr. D was given the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction and, true to the embarrassed-by-attention Molisano he seems to really be, instead of fluffing out his feathers and doing a strut across the stage, in his acceptance speech he talked about what a wonderful writer Saul Bellow was.  After the event, the audience was supposed to wait until the awardees had left the auditorium, but some folks dawdled and I got swept away with the tide until there was a kind of bottleneck at the door, and who do you think was suddenly behind me?  The Don.  I mean, just there.  So I summoned up all my mental reserves, and turned, and said in the high-pitched voice of an ignoramus 14-year-old:  “Mr. DeLillo, I love your work, and thank you, and I’ve always wanted to shake your hand.”  The Don said, “Oh thank you,” and we shook hands.  It was like taking a bird’s wing.  And I couldn’t say another word, nothing like, Mr. D, how I loved listening to the recording of you from the 92nd Street Y reading the prologue from Mao II when I was working in the Trade Center, and how wonderful it was when you take that slight pause just before you say “The future belongs to crowds,” because you know it’s perfect and you just have to stop in the moment…and how I’d listen to that and my eyes would fill with tears…  Well, I figure it’s a good thing I didn’t say this, because the poor man probably would’ve done the duck-and-cover.  As it was, the Don was a vapor.  I shook his hand and in a moment he was gone – like the nun in the internet ether at the end of Underworld.  He was so unassuming, like a certified public accountant.  After that I totally understood how he can put on a pair of tinted aviator glasses and walk the streets of NYC unrecognized.

Sad to say, when I told people at work the next day what happened, no one except my friend and officemate Mike knew who Don DeLillo was…sigh.  This reminded me of something that happened years ago.  My best friend Kim was using the pay-by-phone option on her Con Ed or Brooklyn Union Gas bill, and was put in touch with an account manager called Mr. DeLillo. 

“As in Don DeLillo?” she said, joking. 

And the guy said: “Wow, how do you know my cousin?”

Like a hip-hop artist, he has never been photographed smiling. 

Mr. D, like George Panetta, did time at an advertising agency, and you find some crazily good stuff on that “culture,” albeit masquerading as that of a television network, early in his first novel, Americana (which also, briefly, has a minor character called B.G. in it – which is always nice).  A background in advertising and names that end in a vowel, however, are pretty much the only things the two writers have in common.

“Suit,” it turns out, is one of the sketches in Viva Madison Avenue!, which came out in 1957 and undeservingly – even given its flaws – seems to have sunk like a stone.  No second printing, no paperback.  The hard-sell flap copy is pure dopey ’50s:  Readers may never recover from this madcap plunge into comedy.  And Madison Avenue may never recover from the hilarious adventures of Joe and George – two of the most wildly likeable guys ever to engage in riotous battle with the gold-plated brass hats of Advertising Row.  Hey, dude, while I die of hilarity, why don’t you block that metaphor?!  Thankfully, Panetta’s prose is much, much better than this. 

Though sometimes billed as a novel, the book is really a series of self-contained sketches, inspired by Panetta’s time as an advertising copywriter.  The premise of each is simple and comic, much like that of a half-hour sit-com.  In “Washington,” George (what Panetta named his narrator, in a fit of proto-postmodernism) and his buddy Joe are dispatched to cover the 1948 presidential election at the Democratic headquarters in DC, which is expected to be a sleepy little outpost, because “Dewey was going to be president; everybody knew it.”  In “Love,” George and Joe play matchmakers for a young woman in their office to keep her from always kissing on them and embarrassing them.  In “Suit” – probably the most satisfying of the bunch – Joe buys a suit that seems tan or gray but turns out to be white, which is just awful because white suits, as George puts it, “belong on street cleaners.” What’s consistent throughout the book is George’s obsession with being one of the few Italians in the sea of, as he always calls them, “Anglo-Saxons,” in the advertising agency where he and Joe work.  The first sketch, “Washington,” begins:

Me and Joe worked in a big advertising agency, and after we worked there a couple of years, they found out we were worse than Italians:  we were Italians who were never going to move to Westchester or Connecticut no matter what happened, and from that time on it was us against the Anglo-Saxons.  

To George’s mind, the Anglo-Saxons think the Italians are thieves, liars, crybabies, no-accounts, skirt-chasers; and the comedy comes in when George and Joe prove themselves to be all of the above by cheating on expense accounts, lying about where they’ve been, making sad faces to manipulate their boss, drinking their lunches, ogling women, etc., all of which proof is given in George’s regular-guy Who, me? self-deceived narration.  The effect is funny in a mild sort of way – it’s another era’s comedy – and I was with the book until I got to the fifth sketch, “Hotel.” 

In that sketch George and Joe follow a girl on the street who seems to be giving them the eye, get her liquored up, and then trick her into going to a hotel to listen to Perry Como (!) records.  She’s drunk and falls down on the bed…and then Joe tries to rape her.  This isn’t working – her girdle is too tight, etc. – so he leaves in a huff, and George tries to have his way with her, albeit more gently.  But she goes into the bathroom and locks herself in; when she doesn’t come back out or respond to his knocking, George thinks she’s dead.  He panics – thinking of the scandal and his “poor wife” – and is on the verge of throwing himself out the window.  Eventually a hotel clerk gets the door open:  the girl has simply passed out.  Joe comes back, and together:

…we got her all dressed up, and kissed her like fathers and told her how sorry we were, then put her in a taxi and took her home, a furnished room on Fifty-sixth or Fifty-seventh.  That made us feel all the more sorry for her. 

This is supposed to be “funny” – except that it’s not.  It’s part of a terrible, knuckleheaded strain of sexism and stupidity peculiar to the 1950s such as I remember from films like Anatomy of a Murder and some others of the period.  (I like to think that it’s less the case today that a certain type of man thinks this way, but it may be that such a man now knows better than to open his big dumb mouth about it.)  At any rate, this shit ages badly. 

So Viva Madison Avenue! lost Constant Reader at that point and did not win her back.  It wasn’t only because of “Hotel”; the book’s concerns are too repetitious – the Italians v. the Anglo-Saxons; George and Joe ogling girls, gambling, drinking their lunch.  To keep up the book’s style of humor, the narrator must play at being dumber than he really is:  so we are stuck in a static world with no forward thrust – much like, I’ll say it again, the boring framework of a sit-com.  The other option, given the milieu, would have been to make George the slick, self-hating adman lamenting the death of his creativity.  But he’s just too much of a feckless chooch for thoughts like these.  He’s an innocent fool, no kind of manipulator of public opinion – no Anglo-Saxon – and therefore there can be no crisis of faith of the sort that usually besets the ad man in fictions about the advertising world. 

I imagine something like this happens in the TV show Mad Men – which seems to me to have a huge debt to a book about the history of advertising called The Mirror Makers, down to the truism that the only Italian-Americans in advertising at that time, Panetta notwithstanding, were art directors, because Italians love beauty and all.  Anyway, I’m not sure how that crisis manifests itself in the show, though I’ve tried watching it mostly because a number of people close to me love it.  Six episodes later, I find myself immune to its charms.  All the characters seem to be enacting ideas of the era, the ’50s hangover of 1961.  Thus the wives enact things like fear-of-divorced-women-in-safe-suburban-neighborhood, Jell-O desserts, and girdles; the secretaries enact sleeping-with-the-boss, lipstick, pretending-to-be-a-dumb-bunny; the ad execs enact sexism, scotch-drinking, smoking, etc., and so on:  empty vessels playing out period-specific tropes.  It’s kind of like an early ’60s SimCity.  I was trying to remember what literary critic said that a character who is a bus driver does not, actually, always think about being a bus driver.  Similarly, people in 1961 most likely didn’t walk around relentlessly embodying the idea of it being 1961, their inner lives dimmer than the faintest flicker of a Zippo lighter. 

 Inexplicably, this image was in the Yaddo newsletter.   
Their enthusiasm makes me feel very lonely. 

Then I thought maybe Mad Men was operating on a meta level, as a subtle critique of the shallow images perpetuated by advertising – what with it basically being a soap opera, a form which of course has its roots as a vehicle for advertising.  I tendered this idea to my officemate Mike, a person who knows from meta; we bandied it around for a while, but he eventually shook his head.  All of which made me wonder:  why on earth am I wasting so much time talking about Mad Men?  Similarly, I recently considered writing a review, focused through the generous lens of Giambattista Vico’s notion of cultural pluralism, of Snooki Polizzi’s A Shore Thing.  But then I put down my crack pipe.    


Panetta had a great ear for a certain kind of colloquial dialogue (“What’s this he has a beer?” “We can work it beautiful.” “Him I should never’ve trusted.”) and in fact, after he left advertising, he wrote for the theatre, with varying degrees of success – an adaptation of Viva Madison Avenue! seems to have closed after one night, while his play Comic Strip won an Obie award.  I read his play Kiss Mama and it’s cute, but so slight, and you can see the plot spooling out before you on lines as predictable as the 5:05 to Greenwich.  It’s cursed by the same terminal mildness and What’d I do? attitude that Viva Madison Avenue! is.  Contrast this with characters in Dawn Powell’s business satire Angels on Toast, or almost any sketch by Damon Runyon (to whom Panetta seems to me something of a literary heir):  with both of those writers, there’s a feel of the real gritty world out there, the world that will eat you alive. Viva Madison Avenue! seems to want to be meaner than it is.  Some kind of real anger must have come out of Panetta’s being one of the few working-class “white ethnic” guys, Brooklyn accent and all, sitting in his office at Y&R.  If this had made it into his writing we’d have a different book entirely, something with teeth. 

I’ve often wondered if DeLillo’s characters are the way they are because they’re so relentlessly deracinated (Underworld being an exception).  They have no roots, no family.  Panetta’s characters seem to have the opposite problem – they have too much family, they’re steeped too utterly in one narrow identity.  The family is always there, looking over his shoulder, and he’s too much the good son not to care about what they think.