At the stark center of Nicholas Montemarano’s debut novel, A Fine Place, lies the brutal real-life murder of a black man by a mob of revved-up Italian American teens in Bensonhurst, 1989. The victim, as indecipherably Other as Camus’s Arab, committed the unspeakable sin of miscegenation, at least in gesture; he was seen around the neighborhood kissing somebody’s punky kid sister. Get the baseball bats.
The book departs quickly from the violent racial circumstances of the crime to hover and skip among the all-too-human subjects of a lingering punishment. Specifically, A Fine Place sifts the intimate emotional wreckage of the Santangelo family, whose youngest member, Tony, is serving 10 years for his role in the killing.
The book opens on the day of Tony’s release. As did Faulkner in As I Lay Dying (and there are plenty of similarities here), Montemarano moves freely back and forth through time, occupying in turn the haunted, self-deluding thoughts of each family member. The prose is spare and hermetic; an incomplete language batters against walls of isolation, incapable of connection and desperately insufficient unto itself. Each character, calling out for redemption, hears back not answers but stifled echoes. The sum of these addled parts does not make a whole; what emerges is a jigsaw of miscommunication, of misplaced hopes and thwarted desires swirling in a very American miasma.
The Santangelo family—Tony’s grandparents, Vera and Sal, his great-aunt Sophia—are locked into a suffering distinct to the immigrant experience, which brings with it a kind of psychological diaspora. Surrounded by the alien elements of a culture it has neither grasped nor adopted, they look to the next generation for clues to assimilation. Compound this with the knell of good old mortality: Sal’s smoking, Vera’s heart surgery, Sophia’s breast cancer. Life is shitty enough, see, without hip-hop invading Bensonhurst. And here, where the combined tensions of A Fine Place really ratchet down, is one of the great strengths of Montemarano’s writing. “I know all about that helpless feeling,” Vera thinks to herself, listening to blacks march through her neighborhood, protesting the killing. “Like a bug on its back.”
Fragmented, pleading, these isolated monologues combine in a tragic caterwaul. Even racism, deadly though it be, is merely a symptom of a disease Montemarano appears to know well: the grinding alienation and anomie that eat a family from within, while they stare dumbly without.