Interview: Anthony Giardina

Anthony Giardina, a novelist and playwright, was born in 1950 in Waltham, MA, and educated at Fordham University. He is the author of five novels, the latest of which, Norumbega Park, is just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Giardina’s fiction often explores social class, family, and sexuality. His new novel tells the story of Richie Palumbo, a first-generation Italian American, who one night in 1969 loses his way while driving with his family in the Boston suburbs and chances upon a WASPy town called Norumbega. There, Richie, recently promoted in his job at a defense plant, discovers and later buys a stately three-story house. It is “the house they are consciously looking for, the great upward move that has come upon them with the force of a demand.” Richie is convinced the idyllic old house will confirm his newfound middle-class status and open a door to the American dream. Norumbega Park chronicles the next four decades in the lives of Richie, his wife Stella, and their children as they struggle to find their way. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a graceful novel of an American family struggling to find identity and spiritual meaning in an age resistant—and even hostile—to their fumbling attempts.”  NPR’s reviewer said it is “one of the bravest, most memorable American novels in years.”

RWR:You once told an interviewer that the “singular moment” in your life came at age 14, when you watched your father “attempt to move us up a class.”  Talk about that.

Giardina: We were an Italian American working class family. My parents were both immigrants from Sicily (Filicudi, actually), and we lived in a small house in a neighborhood composed of people much like us. But my father was secretly ambitious–both my parents were, actually, socially ambitious. It came as a great surprise when they announced that they had bought a plot of land in the woods of Waltham and we were building a house there. It was very much as it happens in the opening of my novel Recent History, where the father takes his son into the woods and maps out a house, and with it a new life, for him. There was something magical about it, because a small group of men like my father were doing the same thing, and soon they’d built a neighborhood in those woods that made them all, at least in their own view, distinctly different from what they’d been before: suddenly they were landowners, immensely proud of themselves, and expecting their wives and children to take this in and behave differently. That’s the central myth I’ve tried to work through Norumbega Park: move to a new place, ascend to a higher social level, and everything changes. Of course it doesn’t, not really, but observing the effort of my father and his cronies to transcend themselves was, for me, like observing a great American story, one that I inevitably keep returning to in my novels.

RWR:Your title reminds us of John Cheever’s Bullet Park.  What is it that you admire in Cheever’s work?

Giardina: I don’t actually admire all of Cheever’s work, but Bullet Park is the novel of his I keep returning to. And again, referring to the concerns I voiced in my answer to the first question, it’s because in this novel Cheever was able to write a story that embodied a myth. The suburban stuff in the first half of Bullet Park- the father/son relationship, the father’s partly absurd but always genuine love for his suburban landscape- it’s all very real, yet you never feel like you’re enclosed within the limits of a realistic novel. It’s the Book of Job we’re reading; Eliot Nailles is being set up for a great fall. The novel also hints at the expulsion from Paradise, Abraham and Isaac, and the Orpheus myth. I don’t think Cheever necessarily had any one of these in mind, but he manages to go farther here than he does elsewhere. At the end of his story “The Country Husband” (which I love), his protagonist recovers from his bout with suburban madness by taking up woodwork. In Bullet Park, Nailles literally has to save his son from the clutches of the Devil. There’s an astonishing riskiness to what Cheever is doing there; it takes my breath away every time I read it. That novel was the model I wanted to hover over the writing of Norumbega Park , and my title is a very deliberate homage.

 

RWR: You’ve cited Richard Yates as an influence, and even have Stella reading one of his novels.  In reading Norumbega Park, I sensed Yates’ melancholy and his constant Flaubert-like attention to finding the right word. Are these the aspects of Yates that are important to you?

Giardina: It’s hard for me to isolate Yates as an influence, though I’m pretty clear about what it is about him that I admire. As great as Revolutionary Road is, it’s his second novel, A Special Providence I keep going back to, and his story “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired”. He was able to see so precisely the cracks and fissures in the life a certain “artistic” class of people were trying to build in the 30’s in New York, and then after the Second World War, the pretensions and the weaknesses behind the artistic pose in a world whose values were shifting. There’s a ruthlessness to his seeing that lifts his prose, and the portrait of the sculptress-mother who keeps appearing is stunning in its precision and in its complexity. But I think of myself as being kinder to my characters than he was. Richard Yates’ very special and distinct stringency: that was him. Who could ever really imitate it?

 

RWR: “Norumbega” is a fictitious suburban town.  But I note that “Norumbega Park” was a real place—an idyllic, immensely popular amusement park in Newton, MA, on the Charles River. Its Totem Pole Ballroom was considered the most elegant in New England. Did you also have that kind of dream place in mind in titling your novel?

Giardina: Norumbega Park was a place I used to go to as a kid. This was after the days of the legendary Totem Pole Ballroom, though there was still a big totem pole marking the entrance. And you get it right when you use the word “idyllic”. That’s what I remember. It was the antithesis of the big corporate amusement parks they build now, which could mostly be plunked down anywhere, in any landscape, and it wasn’t tacky like the beachfront parks- Nantasket, Revere Beach.  It had been built, if I remember correctly (and I’m no doubt idealizing it a little), with respect for the landscape. There were paddle boats out on the Charles River, and there was a scary ride called “Davy Crockett’s Nightmare” that went out over the water. I carry a heightened sense of the suburban landscape of my childhood (it seemed to me a landscape set up to encourage dreaminess), and yes, the park is what my title alludes to. The strangeness of the word “Norumbega”, and the sense of the world as still being undiscovered. That’s what Richie feels when he stumbles upon the town of Norumbega: that some part of the world remains for him untouched, pristine, rife with possibilities.

RWR: In your recent New York Times interview, the interviewer said your novel tackles “class ascendancy through real estate.” Isn’t that another expression for the American dream?  “They would come here, and all would be wonderful, wonderful, wonderful,” thinks Richie Palumbo. Does that kind of quest always end badly?

Giardina: No, I’m sure it doesn’t always end badly. That would be a horrible generalization. But I’m interested in class dynamics and how they work in families. It’s one thing for a married couple to want a bigger, better house and to go after it, and to go after the social ascension they sometimes believe accompanies such a move. But if that quest has too much meaning (as it maybe did for my parents, and as it certainly does for Richie in Norumbega Park), the kids are going to have a reaction. They’re going to see that something is being expected of them. And how is that going to play out? What if Jay Gatsby had had a son from an early liaison, and that son lived with him in the mansion in West Egg? That’s the kind of thought that intrigues me. Sons and daughters see through their parents so easily, and they make choices about who they’re going to be accordingly. You can move into any house you want if you can afford it, and you can move yourself up a class if that’s absolutely essential to you, but don’t expect your kids to grease the wheels of that forced ascension.

 

RWR: How difficult was it to write about a family and the sexuality of its members? What was the biggest challenge?

Giardina: I’m probably leaving myself wide open here, but sex is the easiest thing in the world for me to write about. So no, writing about the sexuality of the family members in Norumbega Park was not unusually challenging. In fact, the only time I’ve felt a strong challenge in writing about sexuality was in Recent History, where the narrator has a gay father, and where, as a result of a complicated chain of sexual events in his own life, the son has to question his own orientation. What was challenging was to write about someone who didn’t know what he was. It was difficult for me to place him- to know exactly how he felt- in his homosexual encounters, not because I can’t imagine myself into those encounters but because the central challenge of that book was to write about someone who was not emotionally present in his own life. In Norumbega Park, everyone is emotionally present to themselves: they may not like what they see, but they know what it is. And that gives the writer- this writer- freedom to follow them wherever they go sexually.

 

RWR: You render many different worlds vividly—from the cloistered lives of nuns to the partying of young law students living near Columbia University in Manhattan.  How do you manage to do that?

Giardina: I don’t know. I guess that’s just being a writer. “Porous boundaries” is how one writer friend described it. My own life would be far too boring to write  about because it would require no imagination, but when I go and stay in a monastery and observe the nuns and monks at prayer, my desire to penetrate their lives activates something in me. You just watch differently, I think. And you mention the lives of law students at Columbia. My answer is: what’s hard about imagining what that’s like? If you’ve been around certain worlds for even a short time, and you’ve observed carefully enough, you’ve picked up enough details to create an imaginary version of that world. You do your research, but the great thing is to lift off from the research and allow yourself to invent.

 

RWR: Whence your great affection for your characters?

Giardina: I write about people I’m drawn to. A friend of mine asked me, with very good intentions, why I don’t write more about people like myself, and the hyper-intelligent, hyper-aware people who are my friends, and the answer is that though I love these people as friends, I don’t necessarily love them as characters. I tend to gravitate toward characters who maybe have a certain emotional simplicity, or directness, or naivete, who then find themselves in situations where they’re in over their heads. And I admire the way they try to climb out of those situations, even when they’re like Timmy, the narrator of White Guys, who finds himself helping a friend who’s possibly a murderer. He does it because he’s helplessly besotted with the romance- the romantic aspect- of his friend, with all the things the friend embodies that transcend, for Timmy, conventional morality. That’s the kind of situation where I can summon immense sympathy for a character, so its maybe the drama I place my characters in that allows me that sympathy.

RWR: Your parents were Italian American immigrants.  Were there many books at home? How did you become a bookish kid?

Giardina: There were books at home- the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and books like “How to Build Your Own House for $1400” (this was the 50’s, remember). Books became special to me because the real thing- real books- were such a rarity. It was almost as though the preciousness of the physical object- the physical book- preceded what was actually inside it. The first books I remember reading were ones I ordered through something called “Junior Deluxe Editions”- I think Doubleday published them. There was something wonderful about their arrival in the mailbox, and then cracking them open- Treasure Island, Hans Brinker, King Arthur and His Knights. Owning them set me apart from the rest of the family. I can still remember reading the Ben Gunn scene in Treasure Island on the family couch, and feeling like something extraordinary was being opened up to me.

 

RWR: Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of Italian American writers?  In the ethnic sense of “Italian American studies,” which has grown in popularity on many campuses in recent decades?  And if not, how do you see yourself?

Giardina: I am inescapably an Italian-American writer, and it’s never something I’ve tried, or wanted, to deny. All of my major characters- except the narrator of White Guys and some of the protagonists of my stories- are Italian-American. But the “tradition” is not something I think about much, partly because I don’t yet fully understand it. I’ve read a little John Fante, but I’ve never read Pietro di Donato. I’m really flattered when a novel like Recent History shows up in college syllabi for Italian American literature courses, but when I read essays linking the themes in my novels- shame and sexuality, for instance- to the larger body of Italian American literature, I’m always, embarrassingly, a little surprised. I always thought those issues were mine alone. And maybe, in an odd way, I prefer to think of those themes as personal rather than cultural.

 

RWR: What’s next?

Giardina: What’s next is a Civil War novel. I feel like I’ve said as much as I want to say right now about the themes of the last three books- class and sex among Italian Americans in the “gilded suburbs”, as one critic put it. I need a departure. My brother in law asked me how I was going to work Italian Americans into the Civil War, and I said “I’ll find a way.” I was joking, of course. It’s time to do something radically different, and I’ve come upon a story- a found story from history- that I really want to tell.

-Joseph Barbato

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