Dr. Thomas Sowell did an exemplary job delineating the behavioral/conflict profiles of Italian and Irish immigrant populations in America’s thirties. Koh’s depictions on his initial Cincinnati stage are anthropologically accurate.
Here is an unconventional presentation that ultimately seduces the reader at an emotional level even while being a difficult read.
The protagonist, Felicissimo, Felix to the fumble-tongued, is a no-retreat, self-respecting Italian immigrant. We meet and learn about him only through first-person soliloquies, but cumulatively, by the end of the book, he is understood and valued.
Felix’s physical strength complements his skills as a machinist/mechanic and also his inclinations to leave others alone and to try for kindness and decency. Placed under suspicion of murder, a situation precipitated by his alcoholic and mendacious elder brother, Felix must vacate Cincinnati in mid-winter. In Maryland, he finds himself hitching a ride, involuntarily, stunned with cold, and is precipitated into a boarding house. A house run by a frankly psychotic woman. She has her own mother in bonds and two state-placed black kids in her religious thrall. Felicissimo tries to alleviate the mother’s travails, the social segregation of the black kids, even the relegation of the household hounds to the out-of-doors in winter. He spends energy and time upgrading his landlord lady’s grounds and assisting his impoverished and prostituted co-workers. This man’s essential decency is entrancing.
Unfortunately, the author’s chapter headings are names, each delineating a point of view–in several cases POVs without preceding introduction or follow-up. The various points of view are in attempted dialect, and those dialects are difficult to follow and require constant verbalizations and back readings. They are not intuitive; they are duplicative. The reader must engage in constant stop-and-check, verbalizing to understand the originally-spelled takes on accented speech. All of that makes for slow reading. This is an original experiment in storytelling that needs to be evolved with this fine author’s further efforts.
Story progression is only accomplished with in-the-head narrative and dialogue (with the dialogue always accompanied by personal emotional reaction). So the story line is stretched. The author must be given credit for making that story line accumulate and for constructing environments that entrap the reader. Presentation in this novel manner allows a very thin tale to be strung out but not to be made more dense. Though, as said, novel authorial tactics slow the story line considerably, they conversely enrich it, as multiple viewpoints deepen the environment in which action occurs. I closed the covers with a pang.