April 2, 2011

Revisiting a Classic: Christ in Concrete

By Olivia Kate Cerrone

Life is treachery. Art is where we reexamine suffering.

Pietro di Donato’s first novel, Christ in Concrete is a mirror to the injustice that Southern Italian immigrants and their children were subjected to in surviving an America on the brink of the Great Depression. Driven by a raw, uncompromising narrative, the reader is submerged into a brutal New York City-esque world bound between tenement housing and Job. That’s Job with a capital ‘J,’ a punishing master, and seemingly unavoidable fate in the lives of working men.

It is in Job where the novel first unfolds, centering on the story of foreman, Geremio, a native of Abruzzo, who is buried alive in concrete when the building he’s helped put up, collapses, due to unheeded safety regulations and the careless incompetence of Murdin the overseer. Di Donato captures the slow agony of Geremio’s death with such excruciating detail, that one cannot help but believe that he is paying tribute to his own father, a construction worker who perished in much the same fashion.

Christ in Concrete could be described as a coming-of-age novel in the most brutal sense. After the savage death of his father, followed swiftly by the birth of his mother’s eighth child, twelve-year-old Paul is overwhelmed with the burden of his family’s miseria. Despite approaching what are supposed to be the public resources of his community--the police, the welfare office, the church--Paul finds zero compassion or charity from those he encounters for help. In fact, the only thing that Paul gains from these interactions (outside of a sliver of strawberry shortcake that the priest offers in a grand gesture of generosity) is the knowledge of the whereabouts of his father’s body, which went missing when the building collapsed. The police are quick to deliver this information with supreme insensitivity:
“What?--oh yeah--the wop is under the wrappin’ paper out in the courtyard!”
Geremio’s family is denied any support from the government since he’d only “taken out his first papers” at the time of his death, and is therefore not considered a full-fledged American citizen. Paul has no choice but to assume his father’s role as breadwinner, working at the same construction site where his father was killed. Though the labor is demanding and fraught with violent risk, Paul enters into a community of Southern Italian men who essentially father him. Nazone, who deeply empathizes with the boy’s situation, appoints himself as Paul’s Godfather, and helps secure him a place in Job, despite the unwilling “corporation” in charge that wants no part of a child’s services.

Pietro di Donato by Eve Arnold
Though slighted of his rightful pay, Paul works diligently, fighting to keep up with the other bricklayers, until he overexerts himself and collapses from heart strain. Ravaged by nightmares that echo Raskolnikov’s delirium from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Paul recovers. During his recovery, he wanders the streets of his Tenement neighborhood, silently observing the other children and various immigrant families that are all packed in together in a dismal ghetto. An awakening begins. For Paul is coming into consciousness of his position, he is processing the realization that he belongs to a people disenfranchised by a class system designed to keep them oppressed. This truth is further enunciated when he, his mother, Annunziata and the entourage of his siblings attend the hearing at the Workman’s Compensation Bureau to fight for Geremio’s death benefits. It quickly becomes obvious that Murdin and the board hold the same agenda. In spite of the evidence that Murdin is to fault for the building’s collapse, Geremio is still found accountable for the accident and the case is dismissed. Paul and his family struggle to understand the reasoning behind this, but their weak grasp on the English language, coupled with their lack of resources and proper legal representation keep them silenced. They cannot comprehend the politics of the system in place, and therefore blame themselves. Yet the significance of this event is not lost on Paul, in how he notices the others around him:
“People, poor people. And their faces pulled at Paul’s heart. Their eyes and lips said, we are the battered poor, poor stupid poor, we are the maimed and crippled and bandaged and blind workers who can not speak and are led and pushed through these corridors like subways corridors and into chambers where we understand nothing.”
It is intriguing to note that it is not just Paul who recognizes, but is unable to voice the injustice of his socio-economic class struggle. The genius of the narrative is its tendency to dip in and out of the psyches of the many characters involved, in such a seamless fashion, much like Virginia Woolf’s writing style in To The Lighthouse or The Waves. For instance, earlier in the novel, one of the bricklayers, a man who dies alongside Geremio, possesses “a voice within him [that] spoke in wordless language. The language of worn oppression and the despair of realizing that his life had been left on brick piles.”

Sign, Union City New Jersey
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
Once again, this man has neither the language nor the sense of empowerment to articulate his feelings, and perishes, knowing he’s been cheated.

Paul finds refuge in an unlikely friendship with his young Jewish neighbor, Louis, who escaped Russia with his family after his older brother was murdered at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution. What attracts Paul to Louis? It is no surprise that Louis is reading Thorstein Veblen’s The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class, when Paul first engages with the boy. Louis understands that the path to empowerment is through education. He has, thanks to the traditions instilled in his upbringing, access to books and an intellectual dialogue that will allow him to transcend class and change his financial situation, therefore improving his quality of life. Yet Louis also senses the great intelligence and sensitivity in Paul, along with the common wound of heartbreaking loss that they both share. Louis later accompanies Paul and Annunziata to pay respects at Geremio’s grave on Memorial Day. When he discovers that Paul is leaving school to continue working, Louis tearfully begs Annunziata to prevent this from happening, even offering to tutor the boy to help him advance:
“Paul, the job is not freedom. Your wonderful brain is freedom,” he says. But neither Paul nor Annunziata are in a position to take Louis up on his help. “No one brings us food,” Paul explains. “Job is freedom…for us.”
Though Paul continues working on various Job sites, eventually becoming a master bricklayer, he does attend night school, an aspect he keeps to himself, to shield himself from the jealousy and bitterness of those other bricklayers around him, who occasionally voice their own regrets about not attending school. Paul views his fellow laborers through a lens of deep sensitivity and compassion. He recognizes how men are so dehumanized by Job that they essentially become Job:
“And the faces about him looked like this kind of a job and that kind of a job…man’s flesh lent itself completely to the balanced delirium of building.”
Of course, la miseria of the people is punctured by moments of intrigue and overwhelming joy. Annunziata and Paul frequently visit a psychic called The Cripple, who feeds people hope with the messages she receives from the dead. Church is where these people, especially Annunziata, draw their strength from, as “the poor’s Christ” is the only real refuge this society is willing to offer. It is interesting to note that the only instances of finery those are able to indulge in occur during moments of religious service; Geremio’s funeral and Christmas Mass are housed in such silk and gold-embodied splendor that the poor are at once engulfed in, but kept at a safe distance from.

Placard at Pietro di Donato Square, Union City, NJ
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
It is from one another that people really draw their strength from. The stronghold of family drives Paul’s noble, if not passionate, devotion to his mother and the responsibility as provider. What cements these people together is the rich sense of community that the paesani foster together. When given the opportunity to experience real joy, the people indulge in it to the extreme, perhaps to grotesque proportions. Uncle Luigi’s wedding is a brilliant portrayal of this. Though he loses a limb to an accident at Job, Annunziata’s brother goes on to find great happiness with the widow, Cola, much to the joy of his friends and family. Men and women come together, pressing grapes by foot to make wine and preparing the wedding feast. There is a magical moment when Uncle Luigi appears before the guests, standing upright on a mechanical leg, and seems to be transformed back to his old self, before the accident.

But amidst celebration, dancing the Tarantella and indulging in rich foods and wine, something more precious unfolds. The men begin to share stories with one another, stories from Abruzzo, about the people and life they once knew. Paul is given the tale of Pietro the Wild, his grandfather, a story that brings alive the traditions and folklore of his people. Folklore embodies the traditions and practice that make up a people and their cultural identity. The Southern Italian tradition thus lives on in Paul, the youth, and carries with it the promise that this culture will live on for another generation.

On a more contemporary level, Tony Ardizzone’s brilliant novel, In The Garden of Papa Santuzzu, champions the power of storytelling and folklore, and why it is the key to keeping the Italian culture alive.

Christ in Concrete is driven by a narrative free of sentimentality. Di Donato writes in a verismo style that the likes of Sicilian realist writers like Giovanni Verga and Leonardo Sciascia would approve of. The narrative that at times becomes abstract in its depictions of the everyday lives of Paul and his community, producing vivid impressions that read as a montage of sounds, tastes, violence, emotions and language that fluctuates between the crude and the poetic. While this style may not be entirely convenient for the reader, the intensity of the narrative is one that gets you by the throat and does not let go until the novel’s very surprising and tragic end.

It is clear that the death of his father was not the only force driving Di Donato to write Christ in Concrete. He carried the weight of the socio-economic disparities that kept Southern Italian Americans poor and uneducated on his shoulders. His passion to represent the grit and struggle of his people and their time in history unfolds with such honesty that the outcome is at once painful and haunting to endure.

Christ in Concrete is by no means an easy read. But it is an essential read for all those who wish to understand the roots of Italian Americana, on a historical and cultural level. Reading this book is a gift in the education that it offers. You won’t walk away from it without being affected first.