"The Italian American Reader"

This scintillating collection, featuring great writing by Don DeLillo, Frank Lentricchia, Kim Addonizio and many others, gives this minstrelized group intellectual props.

Published April 29, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

Full disclosure: I know Bill Tonelli, the editor of "The Italian American Reader," a comprehensive and long overdue new anthology. We worked together at Esquire magazine, sometimes getting along, other times not (and when Italians are not getting along they usually stop talking to each other, which we didn't). Tonelli also had the nerve to leave me out of this glorious, affirming three-dimensional collection. The balls on him. To be fair, his book closed before my piece about my father came out in GQ last year. (Or that's what he tells me.) But, it must be said, Tonelli has done a great thing for the Italian-American community (if you can call us that) and to anyone who's interested in the immigrant experience and how it vanishes, sadly and triumphantly. And, better still, for anyone who just plain likes to read quality stuff.

He's gathered works by near-beacons like John Ciardi, John Fante and Pietro di Donato, and contemporary works by Don DeLillo, Gay Talese, Helen Barolini and Mike Paterniti, among others, to take a group that's been -- what's the word? -- minstrelized in popular culture and has made them, us, smart, literary, abstract, stylized, writerly, intellectual. Who knew?

Admit it: These are not the words that come to mind when you think of this ethnic group. (Racist, provincial, misogynistic, homophobic, maybe.) Thank TV and movies: Vinny Barbarino, Tony Manero (Travolta's exacta), Tony Banta and that other moronic houseboy Tony Danza played, Rocky, Carla, and Raymond (couldn't they at least have made him a movie critic rather than a sportswriter?). And, unbelievably, three new shows (and this in the post-"Sopranos" din): "Mafia Doctor" on CBS, about a surgeon who moonlights as a mobster; the ABC reality show "The Family," detailing the Machiavellian doings of an embarrassing lot; and ABC Family Channel's "My Life Is a Sitcom," in which the producers combed the country for the endearing, but ill-educated, Zaccagnino sisters, among the favorites.

Everyone knew our gangsters (real and fictional), our Rockys (real and fictional), and our singers and actors. But our thinkers, our writers, our poets? So Tonelli -- pro-"Sopranos," ironically -- had the chutzpah to do something about it. Tonelli, who authored the clever memoir-cum-road-book "The Amazing Story of the Tonelli Family in America," back in 1994 (overlooked by critics, now that I think about it), divided the collection into 10 workable sections: home; Mom; sex, love and good looks; food; pop; death; work; God; each other; everybody else.

The anthology begins -- after a wise, roisterous forward by Nick Tosches -- with none other than the postmodern DiMaggio: Don DeLillo, the hero of every Italian geek, from his opus-ish "Underworld." That was a first for DeLillo: After having mined various dystopias in 10 novels (and two plays) he wrote for the first time about his hometown, the Bronx, and a character named Bronzini. (A DeLillo footnote: A very smart, hip woman I went to college with once pronounced his name DeYEEyo, as if it were a Spanish name. She was Filipina, maybe that was why. I continued to pronounce it DeLillo, and she, louder each time, would say DeYEEyo, until I told her, to her amazement, that he was Italian not Latino.) Other highlights abound: A hilarious and heartbreaking bit from the lit critic Frank Lentricchia, himself a DeLillo scholar; raunchy and regal verse by Kim Addonizio; an excerpt from Tosches' fine, and forgotten, novel "Cut Numbers" (where was the movie deal on that one?); a beautiful short story, published in the Atlantic Monthly, by Ralph Lombreglia; a brilliant essay on fashion and Italianness by Maria Laurino whose memoir "Were You Always an Italian?" slipped under the radar a couple of years ago; and a bold piece of writing by a young guy named John D'Agata, who began rethinking the essay form and pulled off minor miracles in his 2001 book "Halls of Fame," another that escaped review. On and on.

Of course, in a collection this big, there's room to squabble. Many (like me!) may have felt left out. The inclusion of Victoria Gotti is too cute by half, though her father, god bless him, was totally railroaded, and her Uncle Peter is a good man -- just look at that sweet face. Mike Lupica may have published novels but he's still a sports hack, and Ray Romano, who plays a sports hack, is no Calvino. And why use Paterniti's brilliant Esquire piece on Francois Mitterrand's last supper and not his equally brilliant Esquire piece on his Sicilian grandfather? Deadlines, maybe.

Tonelli's introduction, too, is alive, irreverent, surprising, yet another highlight of the book. He makes the point that not all the pieces are about "being Italian." Just as well. Tonelli then delves into the question Gay Talese posed in the New York Times Book Review 10 years ago: Where are the Italian-American novelists? (Italians, unlike those groups they have most in common with -- Jews, with the Oedipal complex; Irish, with the Catholicism; Latinos, with the Madonna thing; and African-Americans, with defying "the man" -- lag behind when it comes to literary accomplishment. My words, not Tonelli's or Talese's.) He poses some worthy explanations. Not airing our dirty laundry, for one, seems spot on. Hence no Italo Roth, which would seem like a natural. But in the last 10 years not much has changed, or if it has it's changing at a pace as slow as the stirring of the Sunday sauce. Forget Roth, where's our Jonathan Safran Foer? Or Aimee Bender? Or Ernesto Quinonez? Or Toure? Or Junot Diaz? Even Mario Puzo's "Godfather" sequel -- as if we needed one -- went to Mark Winegardner, half-Irish, half-German. (What, Tom Hagen's gonna write the family history now?)

But what, I wanted to ask Tonelli -- if we were talking -- about the dearth of Italian-American editors? Look at the top literary magazines, and by that I mean quality magazines, where pieces are turned into book deals, and later movie deals, which gives writers something they're usually desperate for -- real money that allows them to continue writing full-time. Look at their mastheads: There are very few Italian names, less than a handful, at the level of either senior editor or senior writer or above. (Not art or photo or ad sales, but in editorial.) Tonelli intimates the importance of ethnocentrism, how he was astounded, proud, inspired by seeing an Italian name in his local Philadelphia newspaper when he was a kid. But it can't be overemphasized.

Tonelli could have kept writing, I'm sure, but the anthology is the main event, a lush, smart tome, something to dip in and out of, or pore over. It gives the ones portrayed as meatballs an intellectual ballast. He's taken off the wife-beater (guinea T's, impossibly, to some) and replaced it with, if not a buttoned-down Oxford, then something else, something finely tailored by us. One can only hope for a Volume II -- and sooner rather than later. And if Tonelli leaves me out this time, we're not talking again. Seriously.

By Michael J. Agovino

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