The End

A reviewer, they say, ought not to speak ill of a first novel. Everyone assumes that readers will turn off to a debut unless critics fall off their chairs and slather superlatives across their copy. But at the risk of my job security, I'll venture that "bad" -- which increasingly seems to mean "mixed" -- reviews don't actually have the power to destroy interest in a book (or any cultural artifact, for that matter), with any lasting power. Popularity, for example, regularly trumps informed opinion, as does time. Many of the books we now consider great literature had what today's publishing world would consider abysmal "opening weekends," including The Great Gatsby, Moby-Dick, Ulysses...hell, Faulkner was out of print until Malcolm Cowley brought his career back from the dead. That said, Salvatore Scibona's debut, The End, draws on the American tradition of difficult prose, zigzagging between brilliance and imprudence, and taking many risks in the process (clearly an unfashionable move), but perhaps more than it can ultimately sustain. As a piece of writing, however, the book nevertheless commands our attention, thanks to the author's high intelligence, bravery, and terrific ability to draw vivid, memorable characters.

In The End, Scibona has taken an overworked narrative form, the immigrant saga that takes place across three generations, and distressed it in a number of quirky ways. Most notably, he doesn't tell the story in the typical fashion, from the point of view of the younger generation as they struggle against the Old Country's traditional values to become happily assimilated Americans, but from the wrinkly eyes of their parents and grandparents. He suspends these stilted, confused and more than a little pathetic characters like plastic flowers in lucite, and has them (and his readers) watch in helpless, silent anger as their lives and families fall apart.

For less comprehensible reasons, Scibona moves the narrative back and forth in time through a period covering the first half of the 20th century, 1913 to 1953. He also divides the story among a variety of perspectives, including some characters who have little impact on, or contact with one another, aside from living on adjacent lots in an Italian-American community called Elephant Park, Ohio. The life-changing event around which the novel revolves is a Feast of the Assumption carnival on August 15, 1953, that seems to devolve into a race riot when a group of black people attempt to join in. Frustratingly, Scibona's vaguely modernist style, with Faulkner's topsy-turvy sense of chronology and Joyce's singsong coinages dancing through it, tends to bury almost completely the most dramatic elements of the story and some of the most salient qualities of the characters. Costanza Marini, who appears to be a seamstress at first, performs clandestine abortions in her basement, but Scibona makes this pretty easy for even a careful reader to miss until the middle of the book, when she performs an operation. (Unless, of course, you've read the publisher's blurb.)

The characters themselves he draws with flickering virtuosity. In the first section, he describes bread baker Rocco LaGrassa, in lively detail, as "faintly green-skinned, psoriatic at the elbows...a soul liberated from worry by luck and self-conquest." The author gives the bakery a lived-in quality and sets the scene so well for a different novel that after LaGrassa's inscrutable wife abandons him and moves to New Jersey with the kids, we're hoping the entire book will center around this dilemma. It is the first of several confusions to discover that the story will be destabilized instead, switching to Costanza's less exciting search for a successor in a neighbor girl named Lina, the story of Enzo Mazzone and his father, who end up in a car crash, and Enzo's likeably insouciant son Ciccio, as well as a mysterious recurring section called "The Forest Runner," told from the point of view of a murderous jeweler.

Herein lies perhaps the greatest trouble for Scibona's readers, as the author makes a consistent effort to accentuate seemingly trivial moments in the characters' lives (Faulkner again?) or exploit merely potential violence -- as when Enzo decides, at the end of a scene, not to beat his son -- or withholds definitive information about the true nature of the conflict that erupts on August 15, 1953. Or is it a conflict?

Hand in hand with this passive-aggressive approach goes a habit that throws me any time I encounter it. Scibona massively overuses the verb "to be." I'd rather assume that he does this deliberately, or put the blame on shoddy editing; many passages in the novel display Scibona's grace with words. But whenever I find my attention wandering and a piece of writing becomes to me like the North Face of Everest -- I keep having to circle back and reread paragraphs, pages, chapters and spend many a night in a freezing tent, nestled under a capital C -- I look for that lifeless little verb, and it's everywhere in The End. It usually comes in tandem with the passive voice -- "Mistakes were made" rather than "I screwed up" -- which, though it has its place, makes a story very static. Besides, plenty of other, lively verbs exist.

By page 218, the verb had driven me so mad that I circled all 27 instances on that page. It might not make an outpatient of you, but have a taste of vagueness-as-style: "He needed something to happen, but that was irrelevant, his need was irrelevant. It was imperative that something should happen. No, it was manifest that something was going to happen. A substance was being held in a provisional vessel, and the vessel wanted to burst." Reading this, it's hard not to recall the adage, "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit." Yet plenty of other passages suggest that Scibona can dazzle with brilliance, and I suspect he will do so in future work. (As evidence, consider this far more exciting sentence: "Across the ball field a sister scampered, her habit hovering in the infield dust, waving her downturned hands with emphasis at the begrimed men who operated the carnival rides.")

The optimist in me -- searching out intention in places I perhaps should not -- has tried to rationalize this tic in Scibona's style as a comment on the emotional emptiness of his characters' lives. Like the passive voice, they don't know who to blame, they haven't a clue, and can only conclude that shit happens. Perhaps as a byproduct of all the time-shifting and passive voice, the book offers very little sense of consequence -- the mysterious tune that usually draws readers on through books. Bravo to Scibona for taking the risk of working without it, but in doing so he mutes the novel's considerable passions enough to render them nearly inaudible. Instead, deniability reigns supreme, especially for Mrs. Marini, who needs it to keep the police away, though true to the author's aversion to drama, we never glimpse a real threat to her business. For her, and many of the characters populating The End, the most painful events in life never get examined, reacted to, or contemplated -- they just are.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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