Gay Talese recalls a history that spans continents, with alienation at its end

February 09, 1992|By George Grella

UNTO THE SONS.

Gay Talese.

Knopf.

633 pages. $25.

Mighty books, Melville tells us in "Moby-Dick," have mighty themes, a dictum that may very well have inspired much of the work of Gay Talese. He has earned a considerable reputation by writing very long books with Biblical titles on very large subjects -- "The Kingdom and the Power," about the New York Times; "Honor Thy Father," about a Mafia family; "Thy Neighbor's Wife," about sex in America. "Unto the Sons," which resembles its predecessors in many ways, examines the fascinating story of the great Italian immigration.

Part history, part biography, part memoir, the book proceeds by Mr. Talese's familiar method of linking the specific to the general, the local to the global, the personal to the universal. The author begins and ends this long and riveting work with his childhood during World War II in Ocean City, N.J., where his immigrant father, Joseph, prospered as a tailor; within that frame he roams through time and space, repeatedly returning to Maida, the little town near the toe of Italy's boot where the Talese family originated.

From there he contemplates the troubled history of the impoverished south of Italy, a region overrun by successive conquests for centuries -- governed by outsiders from France, Spain and the dominant North; victimized by bandits; threatened by natural disasters; and devastated by two world wars. Combining fact and fiction, Mr. Talese recounts some of the great events of Italian history in which his ancestors participated, from the triumph of the Risorgimento, which led to Italian unification, to the disaster of Caporetto in World War I, which led to the rise of Fascism.

He pauses to weave the lives of important men through the fabric of his narrative, including not only Garibaldi and Mussolini but also Dr. Richard Mattison, a multimillionaire who made his fortune on quack medicine and asbestos mining, and employed thousands of Italian immigrants in the company town of Ambler, Pa. In the course of its story, the book suggests a multitude of connections between past and present, Italy and America, the Taleses and everybody else: My family is in there, and yours is, too.

Mr. Talese returns often to his ancestral home and to the members of his father's generation. He devotes much of the book to the life of his father's cousin, Antonio Cristiani, also a tailor, who built a thriving business in Paris and became a prominent member of the Franco-Italian community. Antonio, who fought in World War I and occupied a most delicate position as an Italian in occupied France during World War II, kept a diary throughout his long life. It provided much of the author's material and no doubt accounts for his prominence in this long and densely populated book.

Mr. Talese is so deeply concerned with so many people and events that he writes surprisingly less about Italians in America than one would expect. He recounts, however, the experiences familiar to all Italians in this country -- the arduous journey from home and family in a strange and promising land, the confusions and agonies of Ellis Island, hard labor, brutal treatment, exploitation and hostility, and, ultimately, the survival of millions of poor, illiterate foreigners. He occasionally lists the names of those few who achieved fame and fortune in the first or second generation, but quite properly concentrates on the obscure heroism of ordinary people.

Like most knowledgeable writers about his subject, Mr. Talese does not sentimentalize the character of southern Italians. He understands the paradoxes of the people and their history, which combine passion withstoicism, rationalism with fantasy, pessimism with hope, skepticism with faith. Most of the people in this story endure pain, grief and defeat; very few enjoy happiness and success. Mr. Talese writes:

"Southern Italy was a fountainhead of dark fantasies, turmoil and hope. This notion [that anything is possible] was fundamental to their religious faith, to their belief in miracles, to their strength and stoicism in times of natural and manmade upheavals."

Most Italian-American writers who confront their own background and experiences do so with a certain pride and affection. In "Unto the Sons," Gay Talese appears to regard his heritage with shame and condescension; oddly, he doesn't seem to like Italians very much.

The final, intensely personal moments of the book, in fact, suggest alienation rather than reconciliation -- the son's emotional repudiation of his troubled father, his faith, his heritage. Sadly, Gay Talese finally seems like one of those Italians who have always aspired to be a WASP and now may finally have made it.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester.

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