Pietro di Donato's "Christ in Concrete"

The long-lost novel that inspired Jimmy Breslin to write "The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez."

Published March 14, 2002 7:03PM (EST)

In an uncanny instance of life imitating art imitating life, the book that inspired Jimmy Breslin's "The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez," Pietro di Donato's "Christ in Concrete," was itself inspired by the tragic death in a construction accident of the author's father, an Italian immigrant, on Good Friday, 1923, when di Donato was 12. Published the same year as Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" to reviews not a great deal less enthusiastic, di Donato's novel became, to hundreds of thousands of immigrant families, the "protest novel" of a generation.

In a subculture curiously devoid of a literary voice on the scale of Saul Bellow's Augie March or even James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan, "Christ in Concrete" quickly became standard reading for many second-generation Italian-Americans. I, like many of their children, found my withered edition in my parents' paperback collection, somewhere between the novels of James Jones and John O'Hara. Di Donato came closer to creating literature than either.

The novel, which achieved major cult status virtually upon publication, must have puzzled my father's generation. Though the New Yorker found it "written in white-hot passion" and the Saturday Review found it "robust ... full blooded" -- quotes that adorn my father's paperback -- "Christ in Concrete" was nothing like the lasagna-and-meat-sauce prose of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather," the book that unfortunately would come to define the Italian-American experience in the late 20th century.

Di Donato's characters spoke to themselves and to each other in an elegant English that reflected a literal translation of their native Italian. "Is it not possible," reads one character's thoughts, "to breathe God's air without fear dominating with the pall of unemployment and the terror of production for 'Boss, Boss and Job'? To rebel is to lose all of the very little. To be obedient is to choke. Oh, dear Lord, guide my path." A worker whose leg has been mangled in an accident cries, "Nurse -- nurse, I sense badly ... nurse -- doctors, I sense ill."

When we hear them speaking from the outside, it comes out like this character's definition of a lawyer: "Somebody's whose gotta bigga buncha keeds and he alla times talka from somebody's elsa!" (Meaning, speaks for someone else.) The death of Geremio, the construction worker, is rendered in prose that clearly has been influenced by Hemingway and Joyce. Like Gregor Samsa waking up to discover his transformation, Geremio's first thought on finding himself sinking in the cement is, "What kind of dream was he having? Perhaps he wouldn't wake up in time for work, and then what? ... The sound and clamor of the rescue squads called to him from far off."

But Geremio, being Italian, thinks first of his family, "Ah, yes, he's dreaming in bed, and far out on the streets engines are going to a fire. Oh, poor devils! Suppose his house were on fire? With the children scattered about in the rooms, he could not remember! He must do his utmost to break out of this dream! He's swimming under water, not able to raise his head and get to the air. He must get back to consciousness to save his children!" Then, "His bones cracked mutely and his sanity went sailing distorted in the limbo of the subconscious. With the throbbing tones of an organ in the hollow background, the fighting brain disintegrated and the memories of a baffled lifetime sought outlet."

Apparently in the eyes of his supporters di Donato's later work never fulfilled the gorgeous promise of his first novel. (Though his nonfiction "Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini" (1960) continues to be read and discussed.) He died of bone cancer in Long Island in 1992, his last work unpublished.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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