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.