Peter Pezzelli, Home to Italy (New York: Kensington Books, 2004)
Peter Pezzelli’s first novel is a delightful tale of loss and grieving, of personal tragedy and of rebirth. A simple, predictable story becomes more complex as it develops. It is also surprisingly fresh and refreshing, speaking to the resilience of the human spirit, something that I’ve always found astonishing.
The Italian-American experience is a fascinating one and one that has interested me, especially since I’ve been a part of it, although on the margins, for over forty years. The immigrant experience in general has always interested me. What is it that coaxed some Greeks, Sicilians or Abruzzesi to leave their home village to venture off to the new world while others stayed behind to wait and to await what, in the end? As for those who left, will they go home again? Can they go home again? Many have but most never will.
Peter Pezzelli grew up in Rhode Island as an Italian-American from the Abruzzi region, the mountainous heart of Italy east of Rome. Although Abruzzi has a coastline on the Adriatic sea, Abruzzesi were never seafarers. When they migrated they went to Rome or to Naples. Many never stopped at those coastal cities though. They continued on across the Atlantic to the new world. In the US many landed in New England. Indeed, Providence and the North End of Boston became the home away from home for many Abruzzesi immigrants.
When we lived on Cape Cod and I had occasion to visit Boston for work my favorite part of the day was a visit to the North End’s Caffe dello Sport at 308 Hanover Street. I haven’t been back in well over 20 years but I hope it hasn’t changed as walking into that "caffe" I felt as if I were walking into a genuine Italian café deep in the heart of Italy. Trying to speak Italian in the North End was a real challenge. Even among the older folks who might have grown up speaking Italian, the Abruzzese dialect was their primary language. So it was nearly impossible to understand them if you spoke pure Italian. The young people, of course, almost never learned Italian or dialect as the goal of the immigrant parent was to see their children integrated as quickly as possible into the fabric of America.
Pezzelli’s parents or his own curiosity served him well, it seems. Over the years he has clearly traveled back to Abruzzi to the ancestral village. He has also absorbed a good share of Italian culture. The bicycle theme and the fondness for the Giro d’Italia that Pezzelli has woven throughout the book isn’t something you develop late in life. It grows up with you and this is a sign that Pezzelli still has deep roots in this part of the world.
The story begins in the U.S. with the death of the protagonist’s wife of forty-five years. Grief settles heavily over Peppi ("Peppi" from Peppino), an immigrant from the village of Villa San Giuseppe in the mountains of Abruzzi. Villa San Giuseppe is an imaginary village, Villa San Giovanni may be the real one, between Sulmona and Pescara. Faced with such a total loss, Peppi resolves to return to the homeland he left as a young man where he and his best friend, Luca, were semi-professional bicycle racers. Determined to rebuild the flour mill he grew up in, Peppi set off to find his childhood friend and rebuild a life.
The story takes quick and predictable turns as Peppi returns to find that, on one hand you can’t go home again. On the other hand, he learns, home is where the heart is, and a romantic homecoming unfolds.
Pezzelli’s writing is simple, the vocabulary even simpler. As one reviewer has written, it is almost high school prose. Yet it reads easily and the story carries right along. There is nothing profound here and the embedded themes are clichés to some degree. But this is a good first novel. It comes from the heart and does a fine job of capturing that piece of the immigrant’s experience of going home. In an interview reported in the Pawtucket Times, Pezzelli reports that his protagonist was modeled after dozens of older, "tough as nails," Italian men he’d come to know growing up in North Providence. Pezzelli’s characters, then, are real people; they’re believable and he renders them well. I’m reminded of Hemingway, though Pezzelli is not a Hemingway. Still, I’ll look forward to reading his next book.