Fiction Chronicle: Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!

A wrapup of new fiction for the New York Times.

newyorktimes-logoSACCO AND VANZETTI MUST DIE! By Mark Binelli. (Dalkey Archive Press, paper, $14.95.) The premise of Binelli’s first novel is unabashedly kooky. What if Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the anarchist duo whose execution in 1927 was a catalyst for leftist rage, were actually a slapstick comedy team? This notion may seem arbitrary, even trivializing, but it sets the stage for a sweeping narrative encompassing everything from the struggles of Italian-American immigrants to the social dynamics of pie fights. “Of course a respectable gentleman did not walk into a party . . . with the objective of setting off a pie fight,” Sacco muses. His own “problem, or gift, depending on your perspective, was his realization that everyone possesses some potential for mutiny, however buried.” Jumping around in time, Binelli uses imaginary archival documents — film magazine interviews, journal entries and other texts — to depict two comedians, one fat and one thin, who do their time on the vaudeville circuit before graduating to Hollywood vehicles like “Ventriloquism and Its Discontents” and the pie-fight classic “Sacco and Vanzetti Dessert the Cause.” For all their onscreen wackiness, in real life the comedians are habitually stonefaced, as when their neighbor appears at their door inexplicably sporting a beard of bees. “I see you’ve got a beard of bees coming along there, huh? What’s your story?” Sacco asks. “There’s really no need for elaboration,” Vanzetti adds. “It’s clearly difficult for you to speak at the moment, we can tell.” Though Binelli effortlessly captures his characters’ competing voices, his thematic connections are often haphazard, and his story doesn’t end so much as peter to a halt. But its joyful nostalgia, pinpoint characterizations and postmodern brio more than make up for a weak second reel.

MAMMALS. By Pierre Mérot. (Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic, paper, $13.) The narrator of Mérot’s darkly comic novel is a familiar type: the improbably charismatic screw-up. Calling himself “the uncle” — in other words, a peripheral figure in his own family — he tells his life story with a practiced mix of self-deprecation and iconoclasm. Burned out at 40, he’s a cross between a beat-generation philosophe (complete with alcohol dependency) and one of the perpetual adolescents of Generation X (including a brief stint working at a tech startup). The uncle’s only real knack is his ability to charm strangers in bars, and he woos the reader as determinedly as he would a pretty girl with a cocktail. Mérot’s translator, Frank Wynne, is uncannily good at relaying the uncle’s epigrams and character profiles, which seldom fail to entertain. He recalls having “a fascinating conversation about love and stylistic devices” with one acquaintance. “In particular she amazed him with her knowledge of the zeugma.” On psychoanalysis, he opines: “The miracle . . . happens in the first month, the rest is farce. The weaker and more gullible you are, the longer the farce. But that first month enables you to make several crucial life changes. You no longer drink a bottle of whiskey every night, for example; instead you drink six pints of beer.” Mérot’s language is so packed that Wynne’s occasional awkward translation can be violently jarring. But that’s a testament to the author’s talent: there may not be much plot in the uncle’s story, but he tells it supremely well.

EVERFREE. By Nick Sagan. (Putnam, $25.95.) With his latest novel, Sagan takes on a theme that (thankfully) daunts most writers: world peace. The final volume in a trilogy that also includes “Idlewild” and “Edenborn,” “Everfree” is set in the wake of a plague that has wiped out almost all of humanity and left genetically engineered “posthumans” to deal with a tiny fraction who preserved themselves cryogenically. “You can bring a person back to life,” says Hal, the posthuman narrator, as he describes the unfreezing process. “But you can’t just thaw and run. The thawed have questions. It’s a confusing time for them. Even the ones without dementia.” The posthumans try to establish a socialist community, New Cambridge, but it (predictably) fails, and they spend the rest of the book doing damage control. Sagan’s story eerily parallels the city’s fate, crumbling as New Cambridge does. That’s largely because the acerbic Hal, who served as the city’s de facto policeman, takes a back seat to flakier narrators. It’s a shame Sagan doesn’t stick with Hal a little longer: his gumshoe adages are entertaining, and they even provoke thought about, yes, world peace. “Did I have sympathy for these people?” he asks of his New Cambridge charges. “Some. . . . But a zookeeper doesn’t have to love his animals. He only has to take care of them. And not turn his back on the carnivores.”

THE LAMBS OF LONDON. By Peter Ackroyd. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $23.) Noted for his biographies (of Blake and Shakespeare, among others) and his historical novels (featuring Milton and Chatterton, to name just two), Ackroyd here turns his attention to Charles and Mary Lamb, authors of the popular 19th-century children’s book “Tales From Shakespeare.” His fictional rendering of their world, “The Lambs of London,” commences before that project and depicts the siblings struggling impotently to live lives of the mind. Charles works as a clerk and spends his spare time alternately drinking and contributing to periodicals. Mary, whose smallpox scars render her more or less unmarriageable, exists for the moments she can discuss literature with her brother. When a chance encounter introduces them to William Ireland, a rootless bookseller who claims to have found a trove of Shakespeareana, the discovery upends their lives and captivates London. Mary is transformed, accompanying William on expeditions to odd corners of the city — brilliantly evoked by Ackroyd — and even giving her brother a proto-feminist dressing-down. “You do not know your sister,” she cries. “When you see me in this house I am sleepwalking. I have no real — no genuine — life here at all. Why do you think I long for you to come home each evening? When you are not wretchedly drunk, of course.” Mary’s struggle is the most dynamic element of a rather sparse story, but Ackroyd’s short, brisk sentences and spare but well-chosen descriptions provide a compelling forward momentum.

HELLO, I MUST BE GOING. By Christie Hodgen. (Norton, $23.95.) Hodgen systematically musters telling details to define the troubled characters in this novel about a teenage girl growing up in the aftermath of her father’s suicide. Frankie, the narrator, is a prematurely cynical amateur cartoonist who scrutinizes her family’s flaws like an anhedonic detective. She has little sympathy for her mom, a waitress and Lawrence Welk fan, though she adores her younger brother, whose main accomplishment is his ability to mimic his teachers. The family’s heart and soul is Frankie’s dad, a Vietnam vet who entertains the kids with Groucho Marx routines and wakes up screaming from nightmares. Since he effortlessly overshadows his wife in the children’s eyes — and even her own — his suicide causes the family to disintegrate. “It had been awkward, falling back into old friendships, the old routine of our lives,” Frankie recalls. “We were like rich kids who had spent the summer in a distant land, seeing things and speaking languages that other kids had never heard of, and it was hard not to be disappointed by the smallness of everything.” Hodgen’s pared-down yet punchy imagery is the main achievement in a story that often has the maudlin earnestness of a young adult “problem novel.” Every happy interlude turns into a crisis, the characters act out their neuroses with clockwork regularity, and Frankie’s tone remains one of wan resignation throughout. The result is less diverting than depressing.

-Etelka Lehoczky, 2006