A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
In April 1903, Diamante, age twelve, and Vita, age nine, are sent by their poor families in southern Italy to make a life for themselves in America. Theirs is an unforgettable love story, a riveting tale of immigrant survival and hope that takes them from the crime-ridden tenements of Little Italy to the brutal rail yards of the Midwest, on paths that cross with the Black Hand, Caruso, and Chaplin. It is a story that reaches across decades, to the son of Vita, who would travel as far as Italy to find his roots and the man who could have been his father.
In Vita, the author, Melania G. Mazzucco, also tells her own story of how she found Diamante and Vita in old photographs, documents, ship manifests, and the fading memories of her relatives, and from these fragments of the past imagined this gripping epic fiction of her family's history.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
September 01, 2006
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Excerpt from Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco
Good for Father
The first thing they make him do in America is drop his pants. Just to make things clear. He has to show his hanging jewels and his crotch, still smooth as a baby's bottom, to tens of judges stationed behind a desk. He stands naked, offended, and all alone, while they sit waiting, dressed, and arrogant. His eyes brim with tears as they smirk and cough with embarrassment. His shame is multiplied a hundredfold by the fact that he's wearing a pair of his father's drawers, enormous threadbare old things so ugly not even a priest would wear them. The problem is that his mother sewed the ten dollars he needs to disembark right into them so the money wouldn't be stolen at night in the steamship dormitory. Everybody knows that during those interminable twelve nights, all sorts of things disappear--life savings, cheese, heads of garlic, virginity--never to be found again. Diamante's money hasn't actually been stolen, but he's too ashamed to tell the island officials it's in his underwear, so he gets the brilliant idea to tell them he doesn't have any. The result of this extreme modesty is a cross drawn on his back and an order to move to the rear of the line so he can be repatriated as soon as the ship is ready to leave again. His whole voyage was pointless, his father and the mysterious Uncle Agnello wasted a lot of money, and Vita--who has already gone ahead--will find herself alone in New York and God only knows what'll happen to her.
From behind the window the city shimmers on the water--towers touch the clouds and thousands of windows sparkle in the sun. The image of that city rising from the water and aiming straight for the sky will stay with him for the rest of his life--so near and yet so unreachable. Faced with catastrophe, with such an undignified failure, Diamante shamelessly bursts into tears and reveals to the interpreter his money's disgraceful hiding place. In the blink of an eye he's back in front, red-faced, his trousers around his ankles, his underwear torn open to get at the contents of the hidden pocket, and his most secret possession in his hand because he doesn't know where else to put it. This is how Diamante sets foot in America: naked, with his chilly pecker starting to proudly raise its head as he hops forward, trying not to trip. He waves the faded ten-dollar bill, ripe with the odor of his agonizing nights, under the noses of the commission members, but no one takes it, and the judges behind the table signal for him to pass. He has made it. By now he has already forgotten the shame and humiliation. So they made him strip? They made him drop his pants? So much the better. For even before setting foot on land, he has already learned that here he possesses only two riches, the existence and utility of which he didn't know of until today--his sex and the hand that holds it.
A far-off sound--perhaps the wheels of a cart echoing on the pavement--suddenly sends him into a fetid darkness. Instinctively he places his hand on the pillow and feels for his brother's hair. Strange, there is no pillow: his head is resting on a coarse and lumpy mattress. Diamante sits up. He looks out the window but doesn't see the shadow of the moon. He doesn't see anything because the window is no longer where it used to be. He finds himself in a windowless room, a closet really, crammed full of stuff like a junk shop. A room he doesn't recognize. On the floor under the bed next to his is a sinister-looking row of men's hobnail boots. But to whom they belong, and where the owners are, he couldn't say. He realizes he's famished, and it slowly sinks in that he's not at home. The rumbling, drunken voice of a man on the other side of the curtain is not his father's. Nor is the stench that assails his nostrils. His father smells of stone, lime, and sweat. But this is the stink of shoes, wine, and stale piss. Doors slam, footsteps, an extraordinary belch makes the walls shake, and then the curtain that divides his closet from another space opens. He is hit by a foul-smelling fart, a roar of laughter, and a beam of light. Diamante closes his eyes and falls back onto the mattress. It's all clear now. Once again he has dreamed of stripping in front of the commissioners, an incident that took place only two days ago but keeps replaying in his mind, and he will dream it until he dies. This is his second night in America. He has been brought to Prince Street, to a house so blackened, run-down, and decrepit it looks like it might collapse at any moment. The apartment, one of many on the top floor, belongs to Uncle Agnello. This is America.
A man enters the room, then another, another, and still another, until Diamante loses count. Someone stumbles onto the cot in front of his, someone else onto a creaky bed. He hears the thudding of furniture being moved about, sighs. People are getting undressed and the room reeks of armpits. One, two, ten agitated male voices echo around him. They belong to a gang of cutthroats devoid of any scruples and thirsty for blood. They are talking--in different dialects and at times incomprehensibly--about things that piss them off, low blows, and the two thousand bucks Agnello has to give somebody or else they'll cut off his nose and stick it up his ass, that way he'll really know what it means to be stuck up, that stingy, snobby upstart. They talk about the policemen who found a nine-year-old girl. Diamante is too scared to breathe. Someone swears and tells the rest of them to calm down, but no one pays him any attention. The voices turn nasty as they talk about Agnello's little baby doll--Vita, that is--who is only nine, but you can already see how pretty she'll be when she starts to blossom. They rip the blanket out of Diamante's hands. He can't see them because he is squeezing his eyes shut and stubbornly pretending to be asleep, but he knows they are looking at him. And so who have we got here?
Clearly he has sparked their curiosity; several hands run up and down his body, but after feeling around in vain for valuables, they withdraw. Diamante sleeps in his underwear, the same filthy pair from the other day because he doesn't have anything else--it's all been stolen. The voices go back to discussing the two thousand dollars, assassins, and blackmailers. Diamante trembles like a leaf in the wind. The blanket tickles his nose and makes him want to sneeze. The curtain moves again. Someone comes in and sits right on his mattress. "Buonanotte," says a sleepy voice. "Get yourselves to bed and don't be making no noise, I gotta get up early tomorrow."
All of a sudden something hot brushes against Diamante's face. A foot. The newcomer has climbed into his bed. The foot smells. A toenail, hard and sharp like a horse's hoof, scratches his cheek. He doesn't move, afraid that if he does, the mysterious man will cut off his nose and stick it up his ass. The man with the foot stretches out on the mattress and stops short when he hits the unexpected obstacle of Diamante's body. "What the fuck is this?" he asks, jumping up. "A little present for you, at least you get to sleep with somebody, since the last time you were so lucky you were still in your mother's jug." The man with the foot swears under his breath, and pushes and kicks to make Diamante move. He banishes Diamante to the edge of the bed, and if it weren't for the wall, Diamante would fall right off. Satisfied, the man with the foot calms down. But the others have no intention of sleeping. They are too excited. Someone has lit a cigarette, and whiffs of tobacco float past him. He lacks air. He lacks everything. The dark hovers over him like a threat, and the voices without bodies grow even more desperate. A whole unknown world presses in on him in the heart of the night; whispers, shadows, and darkness crowd around him as he lies there defenseless. Flattened like a pancake against the wall, he is overcome with terror when the bandits start discussing the piece of a boy found in an underground construction site. They say piece not in the sense of a real fine specimen of a boy. Turns out he was just a twelve-year-old kid. No, a piece because that's all that was left of him. His head and trunk. No tongue. And no pecker.
"For Chrissake, go to sleep, won't you!" the man with the foot shouts. "Mind your own business. Shhh, enough already." But first, more blood, more murders and mutilations, until finally, little by little, the conversation begins to break off, the corpse in the construction yard mingles with heartfelt praise of the tits of a certain Lena and the correct spelling of the word die--as in PAY OR DYE, as it was written in the letter--and then gets mixed up with the talk about hundred-dollar bills--how many do you need to make two thousand?--and an argument over the best technique for sharpening a knife blade on a nose stuck up your ass. Between one sentence and the next the silences become longer. In the space of half an hour, the quarrelsome phantoms of the room drift into a deep sleep. Someone starts snoring and gets a kick in the face that makes him shut up once and for all. Even the noises from the street seem muted and more distant now. But Diamante can't fall asleep. He is shaking, thinking about a head without a tongue abandoned in a construction yard. About the foot pressing against his cheek. About faceless bandits who want to kill Uncle Agnello. Or who want to kill Diamante, even though he's just a little pipsqueak who doesn't scare anybody. Alas, it's true, he is a pipsqueak; even though he'll be twelve in November, he still looks like a little boy. Although in truth he isn't really a child and never has been--in fact, in front of the commission he already knew he was a real man.
He remains awake, motionless on the lumpy mattress in the humid, fetid air. When the first light of day filters through the curtain, he leaps over the man with the foot and onto the floor. He lands on an open can of sardines and cuts himself on the ragged metal edge. Stifling a cry, he kneels to examine the sleeping men. They have troubling faces, hairy black mustaches, skin burned by the sun, rings of wrinkles around their eyes, filthy hair, bulky hands. They would scare him if he met them on the street in the light of day--not to speak of the night. Except for the man with the foot. He has a scraggly mustache and a tall, spindly body like an asparagus. Diamante doesn't recognize him sleeping there, but this must be his cousin Geremia. He left last year.
The house on Prince Street is crammed full of pans, bowls, tubs, sacks of flour, barrels, and trunks. Diamante feels his way around wooden cages with plump clucking chickens and a pot of half-dead basil. He nearly breaks his nose when he bumps up against a plaster statue of the Madonna delle Grazie, patron saint of Minturno. The statue is damaged; evidently others had bumped into it as well, and were even less fortunate than he. He zigzags among damp undershirts, sheets, and socks dangling precariously from wires that slice up the room and slap against his face. Finally he trips over a double bed behind a screen in what seems to be the kitchen. Diamante gawks when he sees on the pillow next to Agnello's greasy head the pale neck of a woman, her arm, and--an unprecedented sight that takes his breath away--a naked leg, which has mischievously slid out from under the sheets in hopes of a bit of cool air. Diamante has no idea who the woman is. But that greasy head belongs to Uncle Agnello, and Uncle Agnello is married to Dionisia the letter writer. And Dionisia is still in Italy--she was at the station with his mother when he left. Both of them were crying. But not him. Curious, Diamante draws closer to the mysterious woman while munching on a cracker. He tries not to make a sound, but his foot inadvertently finds the chicken cage and the hens start squawking. The mysterious woman has hair the color of honey and eyes the color of vinegar. When Diamante realizes that if he can make out the color of her eyes, she must be awake and looking at him, he recoils with a start, knocks over the cage, and falls flat on the floor.
Agnello had rented the house on Prince Street from the neighborhood boss; given his insatiable desire to make money, he turned it into a sort of boardinghouse in the hope of recovering his expenses from purchasing the fruit and vegetable shop. Those men with the mustaches, even if they look like criminals, and probably are, are also his boarders. They pay for a bed, cleaning, and meals. Even Diamante is supposed to pay. Uncle Agnello doesn't give discounts. He has always been tightfisted because he's rich. Or he's rich because he's tightfisted. Out of stinginess he piles as many men as possible into these narrow rooms. There are cots everywhere, in front of the stove, behind every curtain, corner, and trunk. Diamante counts fourteen men and the woman with the naked leg. But he is looking for another woman, or a little girl, rather: Vita.
Vita's hand--damp, sticky with sugar, held tight in his--will turn out to be the only thing that Diamante remembers about the moment when the ferry drew close to the piers at Battery Park. All the others talk about how moved they were when they saw the immense buildings of Manhattan, blackened with soot, and the thousands of glass windows refracting the light as if sending some mysterious signal. Puffs of smoke crown the towers and blur their outlines, transforming them into an immaterial vision, a dream. Others tell of the smokestacks on the ships anchored along the quays, the flags, the signs announcing offices, banks, and businesses, the huge crowds thronging the port. But Diamante is too short to see anything of the promised land except a bunch of ragged rear ends and emaciated spines. He straightens his hat, a cap with a stiff visor, but it is too big for him, and it falls over his ears. With a hop he hoists his sack over his shoulder. The sack is nothing more than the casing from a striped pillow--his pillow--which now contains all his belongings. The laces on his tiny boots are so tight his feet hurt. He grips Vita's hand harder, fearful that any bump or shove or even just the inertia of the crowd might separate them. "Don't leave me," he orders her, "not for any reason, do not leave me." Vita is his passport to America, even if she doesn't know it. A rumpled and feverish passport, with snarled hair and a flowered dress. She should have the yellow receipt between her lips, but for some reason it isn't there. A receipt like the one they give you to claim your baggage. And, in fact, they were supposed to be claimed. On the yellow receipt was written GOOD FOR FATHER, but neither Vita nor Diamante had the slightest idea what those words meant. Vita nods and, to show him she understands, sinks her nails into his palm.
Everyone is searching for someone, calling out in dozens of unknown languages, harsh and guttural. Everyone has someone who has come to get them, or they are waiting for someone on the dock, a name and address scrawled on a scrap of paper--a relative, a fellow countryman, a boss. And most people also have work contracts, even though they all deny it. You had to. In truth the second thing Diamante did in America was make up a story, something else he had never done before. In a certain sense you could say he lied. It works this way: At Ellis Island the Americans throw a bunch of questions at you--an interrogation of sorts. The interpreter, a really evil bastard who clearly has made a career out of exercising his zeal against his countrymen, explains that you must tell the truth and nothing but the truth because in America lying is the greatest of sins, worse than stealing. Except that the truth doesn't help them and it certainly doesn't help you. So you ignore the interpreter and tell them the story you've prepared. If you believe it, so will they. Look them in the eye and swear. I swear I do not have a work contract (but of course he has one, Uncle Agnello is sending him to Cleveland to work on the railroad). I swear my uncle will provide for me for the entire time I will stay in Nevorco (that's a good one, because Agnello is tighter than a sheep's ass). But the commission didn't waste time in verifying. They were in a hurry, for on the same day that he suddenly turned up, the commission had to examine another forty-five hundred of them, descended on America like the locusts in the Bible. The officials were exhausted and had been given orders to loosen the nets. They weren't paying much attention to his answers. So Diamante pulled up his pants--and screwed them over.
"You're hurting me, Diam?," Vita moans. He is squeezing her wrist so hard that the skin is white. "Stay close to me," Diamante responds. He looks like a soldier in that cap. She obeys. They disembark hand in hand and are immediately swallowed up by the restless crowd. Amid the deafening roar of vehicles, the creaking of winches and chains, the whistle of ships' sirens, and the shouts of passengers, somebody is selling rides to the train station, someone else a bed for the night, or fresh water, or directions, while others are here to relieve you of your wallet. A group of boys is perched on a coal heap, smoking cigarette butts and ready to knife the first wretched fellow who rounds the corner. Diamante holds his passport between his teeth; his father's consent to expatriate is stamped there next to his personal characteristics. He is so busy elbowing his way that it doesn't occur to him to wonder why Vita isn't still chewing on the yellow receipt. When the rascals lurking around the wharf realize that those two kids holding hands are not being met by anybody, they descend on them, haggling over who gets first dibs. They try jumping them, but Diamante doesn't let himself be hoodwinked. He digs in his heels and pulls Vita close. She is smiling at all the well-dressed men who are smiling at her. About each one of them she thinks, This is my father.
Don't speak to strangers, his father had reminded him over and over, and he had promised to remember. Don't listen to anyone, stay on the island, and wait till Uncle Agnello comes to get you. He'll recognize you. The problem was that Agnello hadn't come. Or that Vita was tired of waiting. It was bedlam in the reception hall. Yesterday, April 12, 1903, 12,668 people had landed on the island. Ships from Bremen, Rotterdam, Liverpool, Copenhagen, and Hamburg continued to dock. Three had arrived from Naples alone. And from their ship, the Republic, 2,201 had disembarked. No one had ever seen an invasion like this before, and the officials lost their heads. Groups flocked together like sheep between the gangways, first one, then another, then another. In the confusion, Vita fell in with a Gypsy woman with ten children in tow. Diamante followed behind her. If she's not going to wait for Agnello, who is her father, after all, then why should he? On the ferryboat the Gypsy woman realized she had twelve children instead of ten, but didn't say anything.
The crowd pushed them inexorably forward. They've already passed the barrier, now they're in front of the White Star Line warehouses where porters are unloading suitcases and stacking them in piles four or five yards high. Not just suitcases. Baskets of all shapes and sizes, bundles of cloth, sacks that have been torn and mended a thousand times. Some passengers, fearful of losing their baggage, have written their names in block letters. ESPOSITO, HABIL, MADONIA, ZIPARO, TSUREKAS, PAPAGIONIS--now these names seem to be begging their owners to come claim them, to save them from people's glances, from the shame of poverty. Diamante elbows and pushes, afraid the crowd will trample them. He turns around. The water is the color of granite, but he can't see the island anymore. With the umpteenth push, Vita's braids come loose and tumble down over her ears. Diamante tries to pin them up again, but she isn't paying any attention to her hair. Diamante may have screwed over the commissioners, but she has screwed over Diamante.
The first thing Vita did in America was a magic trick. She had come down with a fever during the night in the lifeboat and wasn't feeling too well sitting there in the waiting room on the island. Bewildered, she studied the faces of the strangers who fluttered by, coming to collect relatives. Severe muzzles topped by coppolas, mugs chiseled in stone, handlebar mustaches and rat's whiskers, hook noses, eyes pitch-black or aquamarine, leather or alabaster skin, pimples and freckles, husbands, grandparents, in-laws, sorrowful mothers, thirty-year-olds looking for the wives they've seen only in photographs, a sad old man howling his son's name. But her father wasn't there. "Is that him?" Diamante tugged at her and pointed to a man with a venerable beard who corresponded to the idea he had formed of Uncle Agnello, the richest man in Tufo, the first to go to America, armed only with a harmonica--and who now, little by little, was calling everybody to come over. He had already sent for fifty people. But Vita shook her head. That man could not be her father. Her father was a real gentleman who would travel to the island on his yacht. When he sees her he will raise his top hat, bow, and take her by the hand. Princess, he will say, you must be my most adored Vita.
In the reception hall was a man with a jutting chin. Vita noticed him because he was the worst dressed of all, with a horrendous green moleskin jacket and filthy checked pants. Prodigious tufts of hair sprouted from his hands, ears, nose, from the open triangle of his shirt. He stared at her alarmingly as he fanned his sweaty face with a newspaper. A dollar bill was stuck in the ribbon of his hat. He was ugly and the sight of him frightened her. Afraid, she clung more fiercely to Diamante's hand and hid behind his pillowcase. But the man with the chin kept staring at her. His greasy jacket collar was covered with dandruff. Your father has a jutting chin and a dark face dented like a coffee bean. You remember him, don't you? You were already walking when he came to get Nicola. But if you don't remember him, then remember this: he will have a dollar bill stuck in the ribbon of his hat. It was at that moment that the yellow receipt disappeared. Vita was holding it in her hand, staring at it in despair--and all of a sudden it wasn't there anymore. Gone. Vanished into thin air. Right after that she slipped in behind the Gypsy woman and her ten children. And the man with the dollar bill in his hat will be frothing in the Ellis Island reception hall because he has lost his daughter. So much the worse for him because he is not her father.