Salvatore Scibona’s debut novel, The End, deftly avoids all the stereotypes that plague many mainstream works of Italian-Americana: you won’t find any greasy gumbas hanging on street corners pitching pennies, no weak little old ladies in head coverings praying to the Blessed Virgin, and absolutely no mention of la cosa nostra anywhere. Instead, Scibona has crafted an artful novel that explores nationality, individuality, community, and what it means to belong.
This novel, a 2008 National Book Award Finalist, is woven around a single event: a race riot in Elephant Park, an Italian neighborhood in Cleveland, that occurs during the Feast of the Assumption in August 1953. Yet the book is not about the riot; rather, Scibona uses it as a catalyst to bring characters together and eventually drive them apart. This unifying event is revisited multiple times from various perspectives. As a result, there is no chronological line to unite the work. Like a thousand-piece puzzle that only reveals its unity when all the pieces have been placed correctly, this novel demands close attention.
The first section recounts the complete narrative of Rocco LaGrassa, the hardworking and boorish neighborhood baker, as he leaves his monotonous life of work and sleep, traveling to New Jersey to join the family that has deserted him in order to mourn his youngest son who died in a prisoner of war camp in Korea a week before he was to be released. After this initial meeting, Rocco disappears until his presence is revisited from another point of view. The second part of the novel moves back in time and recounts the histories and relationships of Mrs. Marini, an elderly abortionist; Lina, her heir apparent; Lina’s husband, Vincenzo; her son, Ciccio; and the Anglo jeweler who raped her. This section is punctuated by Mrs. Marini’s conversations with her long dead husband, for whom she had left her home and family in Italy. The final section revisits these conversations to explore Mrs. Marini’s place in the world.
Scibona’s winding plot never quite reaches resolution, as the most important element of The End is the psychological exploration of his characters. Characters are revealed through their thoughts and words, as well as those of the narrator, rather than through their actions. When we are formally introduced to Mrs. Marini, she is not in the middle of the action, nor is she revealed by physical description:
She was now sixty-eight. Death beckoned. And that was really too bad, because, having been anxious in her youth, disappointed in maturity, and then desolated in middle age, she had recently made a conspicuous turn: In what she expected were her final years, she found herself in possession of powers she had long ago given up home of acquitting. It was a windfall. She had become happy – no, exuberant.
Scibona focuses on the minds and internal lives of his characters – their actions and their ethnic groups are secondary. Being Italian and belonging in Elephant Park are taken for granted until outsiders are introduced into this community. There are only three points at which outsiders are addressed: the black youths whose dancing sparks the riot, the Anglo jeweler who rapes and impregnates Lina, and Gary, an American whose father was born in Elephant Park. “Gary didn’t come from here. He was born in a suburban hospital on the South Side. But he loved the feast. It gave him a warm feeling.”
Scibona’s language is haunting and requires careful reading for full understanding. The prose often reads like poetry, causing the reader to slow down and experience the language while delving into its meaning. “The jeweler knows that the undiminished desire to be accused by name by this woman is the proof that he has failed… He has a name, too, that could save him from himself, that could turn him into a word if only she were to see him and call him by it… But she isn’t here, surely, she’s dead – the instrument of his salvation – he killed her surely.” The End rewards attentive readers with a rich tale to savor.