An exit from Brooklyn, and back again

January 22, 1995|By Judith Bolton-Fasman

The essays in "Crossing Ocean Parkway" are autobiographical explorations and personal excursions into literary criticism that probe the connection between identity and ethnicity. The Ocean Parkway of the title was the dividing line between working-class Italian and middle-class Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Marianna De Marco Torgovnick began her life in Bensonhurst, but crossing the parkway was not as much a change of geography as it was a transformation of mind. Many of Ms. Torgovnick's pieces focus on that transformation as well as the universality of her multicultural success story.

Not surprisingly, the more poignant essays in the book meld cultural history with personal reminiscences. "On Being White, Female and Born in Bensonhurst" is the collection's seminal essay; it was selected for inclusion in the "Best American Essays 1991." In the piece, Ms. Torgovnick responds empathetically to the racially motivated killing of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst. She declares her solidarity with outsiders like him when recalling her own estrangement from her neighborhood.

When she returns to Bensonhurst as a successful professor, a craving for cremolata -- almond-flavored ice -- leads her into a Italian social club for men only. The incredulous old men interrupt their card games to watch her at the bar. "Finally, a few old men's hisses pierce the air. 'Strega,' I hear as I leave, 'mala strega,' 'witch,' or 'brazen whore.' . . . Knowing the rules, I have broken them. I shake hands with my discreetly rebellious past, still an outsider walking through the neighborhood, marked and insulted -- though unlikely to be shot."

In an essay titled "The College Way," Ms. Torgovnick weaves the disparate threads of her personal and professional lives. She creates an autobiographical tapestry that depicts the inherent harshness of outsider status. She remembers a difficult five years trying to make a life at a small college in a picture-postcard New England town. The unnamed school is only referred to as "the College," the capital "C" underscoring her disdain for the place.

Being welcomed into the College's insular social life involved "rituals that appeared cruel beneath their genteel surface." One professor played host to a game of charades as a way of testing his guests' literary knowledge. Deeper human ties were tenuous. After Ms. Torgovnick's 3-month-old son died of heart failure, acquaintances would cross the street to avoid her.

Although she published a book and won a fellowship, Ms. Torgovnick was denied tenure. "These two things occurred in sequence in my life: losing the baby, being denied tenure. I do not believe that I ever confused anger at not getting tenure with grief over Matthew." With these trenchant observations, Ms. Torgovnick distinguishes herself as an unflinching chronicler of her inner life.

The second half of the book is devoted to "Readings by an Italian American Daughter." These essays, mainly academic musings, combine intellect with soul. The "Politics of the 'We' " most successfully reflects that combination. In the essay, Ms. Torgovnick attacks academics who wield the pronoun to the exclusion of others. She disparages the use of "we" as "the pronoun of choice for popes, kings and queens: For them, it comes with the territory of office. For critics, the trick in using it as a source of authority seems to be believing that the litany of great names comprises an aristocracy of its own, a line of descent as yet incomplete, awaiting one more name: 'one of us' is missing the 'we,' and the missing one is the writer himself."

The Ocean Parkway divide and its accompanying rivalries resurface as she wonders why Mario Puzo's novels are not considered as canonical as the work of John Cheever or Philip Roth. She concludes that Mr. Puzo's writing talent has been overlooked in establishing a literary tradition because it is associated with recording the shifting fortunes of the Mafia. Ms. Torgovnick also casts a critical glance at a fellow Italian- American daughter, Camille Paglia. In an engaging essay called "The Paglia Incident," she takes the anti-feminist to task for identifying with "the Italian American male sense that women can be good, but men are always better."

In the book's final essay, Ms. Torgovnick crosses Ocean Parkway back to Bensonhurst for her father's funeral. The piece beautifully unites the themes of the previous essays in a moving retrospective of the old neighborhood. Despite their provincialism, friends and neighbors rallied around the De Marco family during their period of mourning. The scene is in marked contrast to the people at the College. Ms. Torgovnick also tenderly portrays her father as a modern man in spite of himself. He allowed his daughter to forgo secretarial school and earn a college degree. He even pitched in and did his fair share of housework, albeit with the shades drawn.

"Crossing Ocean Parkway" depicts many crossings. Ultimately, those journeys led Marianna De Marco Torgovnick into an "active intellectual life" where she initially found "no branch marked Italian American and female" on which to perch. She has found her place in her essays, which thrive on the "simultaneously choking and nutritive power" of her roots.

Ms. Bolton-Fasman is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

Title: "Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings by an Italian American Daughter"

Author: Marianna De Marco Torgovnick

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Length, price: 177 pages, $22.50

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