Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ottavio Cappellani's first

In anticipation of the release of Ottavio Cappellani's second novel to be translated into English (A Sicilian Tragedee), I went looking for the first one, Who is Lou Sciortino, in spite of a negative review from Publisher's Weekly posted on the Amazon website. The Publisher's Weekly reviewer compared Cappellani unfavorably to Elmore Leonard--what's with the Elmore Leonard comparisons? Does every novel dealing with the mob, or every comic crime novel with a meandering plot, have to be an Elmore Leonard clone? In fact, Who is Lou Sciortino is quite a different book from anything Leonard has done, and though it's not a perfect book, it has its rewards. First, Sciortino is a farce, with murder in place of most of the sex in a traditional farce. The plot deals (loosely) with Don Lou Sciortino of the New York mob and his grandson, also named Lou Sciortino, who's in charge of a film company that is really a money laundering operation.
When there's a bombing in his office, Lou Jr. gets sent off to his grandfather's home town, Catania, where he's supposed to hook up with Lou Sr.'s old Mafia buddies. But a filmmaker, a Mafia hairdresser, a would-be rocker who has turned to robbery (and mayhem) to support himself, a shopkeeper, a Jayne Maynsfield-like actress, various thugs, bodyguards, and "picciotti" (soldiers or "boys") twine around each other in sometimes calculated and sometimes casual violence when not attending barbecues, plotting more money laundering operations, and one-upping each other. The result doesn't make much sense as any kind of linear plot: it's really the story of what Corriere della Sera called a "post-modern Catania" and a post-modern Mafia as well. Here, as in Yeats's famous line, the center does not hold. The old ways have broken down (and even the grandfathers have to finally admit that the good old days were not so great), and what's left behind is a chaos of ambitions, offended honor, meddling grandfathers, sex-starved young people, and the various children, hangers-on, would-be mobsters, and picciotti who are caught between all of the above. The real pleasure, and perhaps Cappellani's real aim, is in the language. The skillful translator, Howard Curtis, has wisely chosen to leave much of the Sicilian slang in the original language, and we gradually become accustomed to the obscenities and interjections particular to the area, as well as much Mafia language, such as "picciotto." I happened to see a 1960s Italian movie last night, Mafioso, which is also comic (until it isn't), concerned with the Mafia's reach into the life of an engineer who has moved north to Milan but has come home for a visit. The movie and Cappellani's book illuminated one another in several ways, both in language (a number of references in the movie were clearer for having read Cappellani's book) and in the underlying theme of the ordinariness (along with the perniciousness) of life with the mob. In Mafioso, we are eased into the sordidness by the comic central character, and in Sciortino, we are momentarily eased into the place of the title character by the use of a second-person narrative at the beginning and end of the story, "you" are being narrated and addressed. That literary trick (fortunately not sustained for very long) implicates the reader and announces that the language and style will be central to the book (rather than plot), and perhaps warns a reader looking for an Elmore Leonard clone to look elsewhere. On the evidence of advance p.r. (admittedly not all that reliable), it looks like Cappellani's second book is going to be a better novel, but Who is Lou Sciortino is fun and also gives detailed information about the speech and the structure of a city infested with mobsters and Mafia history but also easing into the diversity and openness of the 21st century.

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