According to the latest census, there are nearly 18 million Italian Americans, or roughly 6% of the U.S. population. Yet even in areas of large concentration of Italian Americans such as New York City, their experience is rarely written about. Locked between “omertà,” the traditional reticence to open up to outside eyes, and Mafia-dominated Hollywood representations, their experience remains largely elusive and misunderstood. The Italian American contribution to labor and union struggles, sports, music, business, and politics, which spreads across the 20th century and beyond, has rarely found literary forms of self representation.
In a 1993 essay for the New York Times Book Review, Gay Talese raised a pertinent point: “Where are the Italian American novelists?” Their conspicuous absence is the result of two factors: widespread illiteracy among the majority of first-generation Italian immigrants and, more important, the fact that Italian-American culture is not dependent on a literary tradition for a sense of cultural survival. A third reason is that prejudice and media neglect dampened the influence of “classics” such as the 1939 novel by Pietro di Donato, Christ in Concrete (which was chosen at the time over John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath as the main selection of the Book of the Month Club), as well as the novels of John Fante. Perhaps Michael Agovino’s The Bookmaker, a sensitive, honest, and often paradoxical chronicle of an Italian-American family living in one of the most neglected corners of New York City, will help revive interest in this rich immigrant experience.
The Bookmaker opens a window into the experiences of second and third generation Italian Americans who steadily became part of the fabric of New York City life. The time is the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and the place is Co-op City, a failed rationalist utopia in the Bronx, described in the New York Times when it opened as “relentlessly ugly.” Over 15,000 residential units, in 35 high-rise buildings and seven clusters of townhouses, were built on 320 acres of marshland at the intersection of Interstate 95 and the Hutchinson River Parkway. Against this background of urban delirium, Agovino’s layered narrative introduces us to the daily strife of an Italian American family whose ambition, inner mechanisms, and cultural horizons defy diehard stereotypes. An intertwining of illegal gambling with an all-American passion for sports and travel across Europe unfolds in the most unlikely urban setting, and informed by paradoxically rock solid ethics, sustains 353 pages of compelling reading.
Hugo Agovino, the author’s father, is the driving force in the story. He bought into the lure of Co-op City, the largest and most ambitious state-sponsored housing development in U.S. history, and moved his family there shortly after its construction, in 1971. The book chronicles the moving love story between Hugo, who was raised in “Italian” East Harlem and his wife Cora, brought up in the Sicilian-dominated Bushwick. They fall in love watching Italian movies by Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti. Soon it becomes apparent that they embody two strongly contrasting versions of the American dream: she aspires to the solidity of home ownership and life in the suburbs; he believes firmly in the social virtues of the urban experience. Cora is a traditional homemaker, devoted mother and wife, while Hugo is a captivating paradox: a combination of a street-smart hustler, sophisticated reader, devoted family man, and incorrigible gambler. Their unflinching devotion to each other and desire for a better life for their children keeps them together against tough odds. Cora and the two kids experience full immersion in Co-op City life while Hugo enjoys his day job in a downtown Manhattan office at the Department of Welfare, returning home every night in time for the family dinner. Though his day job did not bring in enough to sustain his family, it provided Hugo with a sense of social worth and a chance to establish meaningful, long-lasting relationships with his coworkers, among them the African-American artist Romare Bearden.
After dinner with the family, Hugo moved on to his second life as a bookie, taking and placing bets on the endlessly ringing phones. This was the big family secret about which the kids were sworn to silence. In his ongoing discussions with his wife, Hugo justified his illegal activities by equating his activity with that of Wall Street traders. (In the present light of the Bernie Madoff scandal one can begin to see his point.) Despite all this, Agovino’s father comes off as a flawed but staunch believer in ethical principles for his family. Living light years away from the Sopranos stereotype, Hugo, who never went to college, kept by his bedside Thucydides and Herodotus, insisted that the family go to concerts, visited museums, and never stopped educating himself. The family’s finances were always precariously balanced between bets, yet somehow it managed to scrape together a dignified and culturally rich life. Hugo makes unexpected compromises with his long-suffering wife: in exchange for putting up with the unrelenting grimness of Co-op City, the family takes a trip to Europe every summer. So they’re off to France, England, Holland, and Switzerland, where the unlikely tourists devour cultural destinations, explore local foods and customs, and create for themselves a parallel reality and escape. No matter that at times money ran out or checks bounced.
In their 23 years in Co-op City, the Agovinos witnessed the accelerated decay of the housing utopia, where 58,000 people lived in increasing squalor. By the mid ’70s, drugs, violence, hopelessness, and the daily indignity of ever present puddles of urine in the elevator had driven many of the original owners away. Yet the Agovinos did not move. Despite the fact that things were falling apart around them, their apartment remained an oasis, where books were read and discussed, young Michael played violin, and good home cooking was always at hand. (Yes, it all sounds more like the Jewish experience in America than what we are taught to think of as Italian!)
Surrounded mainly by Hispanic and black youths,as a teenager the author struggles with his Italian American identity. He survives and gains acceptance from his peers mainly through his vast knowledge of sports, a byproduct of the family’s passion and his father’s extracurricular activities. His desire to assimilate and be a “real American” is fierce. Building on his passion for the Minnesota Vikings, he passes himself for a native of Minneapolis. His exertions illustrate the formative force of sports in shaping the “American identity.” It is telling how deeply sports had penetrated into his psyche, that the catalyst for the author’s finally coming to terms with his Italian heritage was his excitement while seeing the underdog Italian soccer team win the World Cup championship in 1982.
The final chapters of the book focus on the author’s life, tracing the completion of his journey from the geographical/cultural periphery to the shining “center” of Manhattan, where he becomes a successful journalist. The long 16 miles that connect Co-op City to Manhattan provide the tangible metaphor for what stands between a marginalized adolescence in urban limbo and participation in the mainstream of cosmopolitan city life. Agovino also examines the development and acceptance of his cultural and ethnic background and his growing pride in the sui generis but rock-solid heritage he gets from his father. The Agovinos’ journey, with its singular patchwork of morality and illegality, as well as its happy outcome, is an idiosyncratic yet exemplary tale, a reminder that the road to the American Dream is a manifold winding path.
Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.