At the close of “Prologue for an Ethnic Life,” Joseph Papaleo introduces, via parody, an aesthetic which, judging from the stories that follow, has formed him as a writer; namely, the two-faced Janus of stereotypicality. He presents a mock Italian American genealogy that begins with a tall, blond family from Sicily and Naples who moved to New York City in 1907. They did not like spaghetti or tomatoes, nor did they urinate in doorways or go into construction or work on the railroad. What they became, after attending Smith and Harvard, were professionals living on estates in Westchester County, north of the city. In one such abode, Tony Junior tells Tony Senior that he would like to spend a few days with college friends in the Hamptons before starting his senior year at Harvard. The family—Papa Tony, Mama Rosa, and son Junior—enjoy their Chivas until Twombley calls them to supper. Tony raises his small liqueur glass. “Here’s to a good senior year.” A squad of American-Way-of-Life-Protection hitmen bursts through the doors and shoots all three dead in their chairs. Their leader proclaims “Death To All Those Who Betray the Stereotype.”
Joseph Papaleo’s dilemma is that many of his stories will be remembered for their enactments of prevailing beliefs about Italian Americans but also be limited by them: Italians are compassionate yet violent; clan-oriented yet capable of betrayal within the family; deeply respectful of their wives yet inclined to stray, especially at first sighting of a sexy blonde. Papaleo best overcomes the paradox of narratives that are at once generated and reduced by stereotypes in “The Kidnap,” the opening story. Besides serving as an introduction to the Mauro family of Lorin Place, the Bronx, this story deftly combines the apparent and the real. A seemingly frightening letter—crudely handwritten—threatens the kidnapping of the Mauro children if five hundred dollars is not delivered in a bag according to instructions. Some readers will find more revealing than the abduction threats a subtext that promises an outcome that is “all in the family.” All the Mauro men and even Mama Rosa, who wrings her hands in approved Calabrian style, suspect that someone among certain Sicilian in- laws is behind the deal. In the spirit of I Soliti Ignoti (1958; Big Deal on Madonna Street), the comic Italian film of a botched heist, Fonzi, a pitiful and grossly fat sponger, bungles his own plot but is rewarded by the Mauros, his would-be victims, with the promise of a job. “I give up,” the oldest son Victor muses. “Now you’re going to get this guy a job. What can you do?” Answer: Nothing.
That question and answer could serve as the coda for all the first nine stories. They go with the cultural territory. In “Nonna” (grandmother), the Mauros treat Lou Mauro’s mother with the deference to the very old that is an Italian family trademark. Crazy Nonna, propped up against pillows that seem to have grown around her, is left to languish in a tiny bedroom that is off limits to young Johnny. One day, hearing Nonna’s muffled call, the boy dares to enter: “She was like a wooden statue. Her face . . . a cast of green over the many wrinkles; her mouth was stuck open.” Fighting fear, he obeys her feeble signals, finds her beads and medallions, fastens them to the bedpost. Directed to her bureau drawers, he removes long-neglected artifacts—a peasant wedding dress, linens and tablecloths, necklaces and bracelets, finally a wedding photo—and arranges them on the bed—splashes of color that relieve the ashen death mask. In death, Johnny has brought his grandmother to life. By titling these first stories “Immigrant Epiphanies,” Papaleo reveals a debt to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), perhaps literature’s most famous collection of “ethnic” stories. For Joyce, epiphanies were “showings forth”—manifestations—of inner life.
“Mission,” the book’s second story, follows closely the plot line of “Araby,” Joyce’s classic story of a boy’s first awakening to sex, but falters at the end, offering an accommodation that rings false. A side-by-side look at the two stories may be instructive. In Joyce’s story, the unnamed Stephen Dedalus figure determines to bring “Mangan’s sister” a gift from a bazaar called Araby. He is thwarted at all points, at first seeing himself “[bearing]...
(The entire section is 1791 words.)