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Salvatore Scibona was born in 1975 in Strongville, Ohio, a neighbourhood of Cleveland, to an immigrant third generation Italian American family and is one of a new breed of American authors who like many before him has with his debut novel attempted to write his version of the 'great American novel'. Has he succeeded?
'The End' is a novel that while being part of a modern burgeoning literary movement very much looks back at the great American literature tradition of the last century. In Scibona's beautifully crafted prose we see glimpses of Saul Bellow, Virginia Woolf, the vibrancy of Kerouac and the sensibilities of Updike, a heady mix to be sure.
The story is set on a single day in 1953 and involves the lives of six disparate characters in an Ohio carnival crowd. Drawing on his experience of being born into an immigrant family, Scibona explores the immigrant experience using this snapshot in the lives of these six characters. This is in part the story of how modern America came to be at a time where the country was coming out of the Second World War and was ready to take its place as the most powerful nation in the world. The country's wealth was built upon the waves of immigrants that fled the old world in search of a new future. In the 50's their American dream was coming true as they managed to escape the confines of their urban ghettos and join the affluent burgeoning middle class. With ambition and desire there can also be desperation and failure and the story also highlights this aspect of the American dream. In the racially divided fictional district of Elephant Park during the yearly catholic carnival pivotal events bring deep seated tensions to the fore and leads to tragic consequences.
This is not an easy novel to read. The prose is at times poetic and the characters are complex and multifaceted, in addition the way the story is told from six different perspectives also adds to the depth and texture of the narrative.
The story starts with Rocco a baker who for thirty years has strived to make a life for himself and his family in his new adopted home. Making many sacrifices and suffering many setbacks Rocco's life changes when he receives the news that his son Mimmo has died in a POW camp in North Korea. Scibona uses characters like Rocco the baker, Ciccio Rocco's son a self-doubting teenager struggling with his catholic roots or Costanza Marini the elderly widow and part time back street abortionist to jump backwards and forwards over seven decades using flashbacks and recollections, uncovering their experience of settling in a strange land. Through these people, through the eyes of these willing immigrants and their offspring he examines the soul of America, both the good and the bad. Scibona skilfully weaves the past and present and through the inner voice of his characters he examines the wider truth of the immigrant experience and gives us an insight of what makes America the place it is today.
Right from the opening lines
"He was five feet one inch tall in street shoes, bearlike in his round and jowly face, hulking in his chest and shoulders, nearly just as stout around the middle, but hollow in the hips, and lacking a proper can to sit on (though he was hardly ever known to sit), and wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb"
some of the descriptive passages in this book are beautifully written and as with all true literary novels a large part of the pleasure of this book is for the reader to immerse himself in the craftsmanship and the imagery or the prose. Scibona has described his characters like melodies and movements in a musical symphony some are repeated throughout using a different key others appear and slowly fade into the background.
Scibona is particularly adept at brining the characters to life through their speech; he provides them with an authentic immigrant voice by the use of imperfect English and colourful use of phrases that reveals their foreign roots. The staging of the story in one day leads to comparisons with Joyce's Ulysses, although I'm not sure such lofty comparisons are valid whether by design or accident Scibona has managed to instil a certain lyricism in his prose that was found in Joyce's great work.
This novel is by no means the product of a stream of consciousness, Scibona worked on this book for over ten years and travelled to Italy to complete some of the research. It does feel as if it has been meticulously planned and skilfully crafted in order to get it to its final form. He admits in interviews that his writing method relies on a complicated system which he strictly adheres to; he writes longhand, then types it up on an old-fashioned typewriter, then revises it in pencil, retypes and revises it again the process taking several years. Only at the end does he enter it on a computer, the prose is then 'dead'.
In places it could be argued that the artistry of the prose is overdone and the realism of the characters voices suffer from this. Sometimes there is too much philosophising at the expense of clarity of thought something which is hard to believe coming from the characters he creates, but it is small criticism and one that a first time author can be forgiven for. Scibona loves taking risk and his unafraid to imbue his writing with emotional intensity, which some might find hard to take.
Apart from the elegance of the writing what makes this novel a pleasure to read is the tightly plotted story, which revolves around the events of a single day seen through different eyes and using different perspectives based on other events in the characters past. In essence it is a thriller in the best tradition of the best American exponents of that genre. This is not a literary novel that can be accused of not having a story and readers will be riveted to it.
So going back to the original question I asked, has Scibona succeeded in writing his version of the great American novel? Yes, despite being flawed but then again what novel isn't?! Considering this is also his debut novel I feel we can expect much more from this young and talented writer.
'The End' by Salvatore Scibona can be bought from Amazon.co.uk in hardback (304 pages) ISBN-10: 0224091492/ISBN-13: 978-0224091497 for £11.89 (incl. p & p) at the time this review was written.
A shorter version of this review has also appeared on TheBookbag.co.uk