Once proud and strong, Waterbury’s City Hall again reels from charges of political corruption. So what could be more timely than the story twelve-year-old Nunzio Paradiso tells as he is wrenched from his innocence and thrust into the world of experience? For Nunzio and us, the novel is both a love-song to his people and a horrible look into the abyss, a look at Waterbury as she used to be and as she has sadly become.
In the tradition of Dickens, Twain, and Salinger, Fusco’s main character struggles on many fronts, but he is wise and big-hearted and gives a good account of himself. Fusco’s control as a novelist is amazing. He immediately makes us at home in the Paradiso family, orchestrates a suspenseful and believable plot, unfurls the ethnic tapestry of the city, and provides memorable characters who are rich in language. Paradise Salvage is a carefully researched and generous work, and the best literary treatment that Waterbury has yet received.
Not since Pietro DiDonato’s Christ in Concrete, the classic masterpiece of Italian American literature, have we been blessed with such a realistic portrait of life in Little Italy. Unlike that 1939 masterpiece which focuses on the poor immigrant class, Fusco delivers, through Nunzio’s sharp eyes and quick tongue, the essence of the Italian American middle-class experience in the latter part of the last century.
Against the rich backdrop of the city’s ethnic diversity—Italians, Irish, Lithuanians, Scots, Germans, Poles, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Cambodians, French Canadians--Fusco’s narrator struggles to understand the reason why a man has been murdered. Nunzio Paradiso, whose family owns Paradise Salvage, spends the last summer of his childhood working in the junkyard. There he finds the body of a brutally murdered man in the trunk of a wrecked ’73 Pontiac Bonneville, but before he can convince his brother and father of his discovery the car is fed to the Green Monster, the junkyard’s crusher.
After winning his brother Danny Boy to his side, the two set out to solve the mystery of the murder less as a matter of justice than as a way of protecting the family from the killers who might try to silence them. The effort quickly brings them to Goomba Archangelo Volpe, one of the most skillfully drawn and vibrant characters in contemporary fiction. Angelo is nasty and crude, a hardened character who knows his way around the city’s underworld. As an ex-cop he has been over this ground before, and he has paid for his miscalculations by having been turned into a miserable, misanthropic quadriplegic. It is Angelo, finally, who leads Nunzio and Danny Boy into the inner workings of a rat’s nest of corruption involving, developers, construction companies, city hall, the mob, and kickbacks. Fusco will soon produce and direct the film version of Paradise Salvage and so fascinating a character is Angelo that the actor lucky enough to play him on the screen could find himself an instant success.
What is so clever on Fusco’s part is the way he wraps Nunzio’s coming of age around the story of why the man in the trunk has been murdered. Readers will recognize the Italian deli on the hill, Holy Land USA near the old Scovill Mill, Route 8, green slime in the Naugatuck River, the Big Clock where this newspaper is published, Soldier’s Horse on the Green, sleazy strip joints, chop shops, seedy apartment buildings, and perhaps even the smell of almonds and the taste of the crunchy sfogliatelle in Fusco’s warm tribute to one of my childhood shrines, Ortone’s Pastry shop.
What grabs our attention more than the landmarks, though, are the accurate and telling details of life in the Little Italian Boot, the close-knit Pontelandofesi, the Calabrese, the food--baccala, soprasatta, braccioli, biscotti, fusilli, and calamari. It’s the comparatico, the system of godmothers and godfathers (Nunzio has three goombas but none who really knows him) that’s realistic and endearing to all of who grew up in this world. And it’s the malocchio revisited for us, as Nunzio learns the secrets of his heritage from tribal elders. Added to the novel’s great sense of Italianita is the love of story telling and the Scottish burr of Nunzio’s mother Nancy, once an outsider but now a validated and honored member of the Italian clan.
Life in Saukiwog is filled with vividly realized characters whose language is so authentic and natural you become a part of the conversation. We have the harmless dialogue of the youngsters that turns raw and lusty in the mouth of Nunzio’s older brother Danny Boy and stern in the contemptuous snarling putdowns of Big Dan, their father. And, by turns, we have black slang, Spanish American dialect, and the clipped wiseguy talk of the toughs who people the seamier side of Nunzio’s story. There’s tabooed language here, quick and dirty retorts, taunts, and verbal swings and counter-punches. As a screenwriter, Fusco knows that language is character, that “You are what you say.”
Fusco also wisely allows Nunzio to tell his story, to show us his world through his own eyes. His is a world of cars, cars that are full of life and cars that are entombed, and the images and figure speech that come naturally to him are those of the world as he sees and knows it. Hence, his fascination with automobiles as the place in which we live and die, think and dream, eat and sleep, find and lose, love and deceive, spy and plot, and identify and reinvent ourselves is quite brilliant.
Fusco does so many things so well in this novel. What’s refreshing and innovative for me, impressive really, is his ability to weave the love of cose Italiano, of things Italian, into his main character’s struggles in dealing with the adult world and the threat he faces. In Nunzio’s move from innocence to experience, Fusco particularizes the larger story of the efforts of Italian Americans to hang onto the best of la via vecchia, or the old way, while negotiating la via nuova, the new way of life. In that regard he also intimates the struggles of all ethnic groups to hang on to what’s genuine, to assimilate, and to fight off the evil that threatens them. It is, after all, the great story of America itself.
Alfred Rosa, whose grandparents lived on Washington Avenue, is a native of Naugatuck. He is Professor of English at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont.