The Uncle from Rome

THE UNCLE FROM ROME is a novel where sexual ambiguity stands as a metaphor for the occasionally bizarre, always colorful world of Neapolitans—a world in which everyday life takes on the drama, the heroics, even the villainy of grand opera. Joseph Caldwell presents a theatrical plot with its stage the splendidly situated, slightly rotten, city of Naples. He peoples that stage with men and women who are indifferent to reality but blessed with the certainty that it has, indeed, always been thus. Michael Ruane, an Irish-American midwesterner and opera star manque, tries vainly to extract reason from hopeless entanglement in the affairs of a local family for whom he takes responsibility as a wholly apocryphal uncle from Rome, hired to give a wedding ceremony cachet. Instead, he becomes bound up with the native tradition of omerta that demands retribution for wrongs, in this case an interfamilial rape. He is in Naples to perform in one opera and to direct another; he becomes involved, however, in a drama either as grandiose or as squalid as any five acts of grand opera, depending on one’s perceptions of the stagey gesture, the futile act, the rightness of revenge. He becomes involved with one of his singers, a smart, cynical drag queen who, in many ways, has been liberated by a diagnosis of AIDS. Ruane becomes the deus ex machina in both situations, one remote and exotic, the other current and all too real, and he learns how thankless, how ineffectual, how heartwrenching that role can be.

Caldwell attempts, and succeeds in large part, to connect life to art, to find that juncture where art gives life meaning. His tale is alternately tragic and comic; it is an exuberant, but slightly false, tale, one in which emotion is so irrational that it becomes absurd, even for Neapolitans. As a stylist, Caldwell relies on the dash so often to convey meaning that it loses all effect. Once upon a time, when authors assumed more education of their readers, the irritating habit of repeating every foreign phrase in English would not have been thought necessary. Caldwell could have set his novel in Mobile, Alabama. Life there is just as overwrought, just as operatic, and he wouldn’t have had to translate words, only ideas.