America the Dysfunctional
The Morelli Thing
(Guernica Editions, 2015)
Few writers can match the bifurcated career—bifurcated yet brimful—of Frank Lentricchia. Starting at the end of the 1960s, as a professor at Duke, Lentricchia established himself as a literary critic of muscle and subtlety. He wrung insights from a formidable range of texts, and did as much as anyone to champion the work of Don DeLillo. By the mid-’90s the two had become friends—itself rather an accomplishment given DeLillo’s reclusiveness—and more remarkably, Lentricchia had abandoned the role of tastemaker in order to create flavors of his own. (Granted, he has a 2003 book on creativity and violence, but on that he had a co-author, and the text owes a clear debt to DeLillo’s Mao II, which links novelists and terrorists.) Otherwise, following an unconventional 1994 memoir, Lentricchia has confined himself to fiction. His latest novel, The Morelli Thing, might be his tenth in twenty years, depending on how you count.
The numbers, though, aren’t as revealing as the narrative: the new story careers along, breakneck. The Morelli Thing works like a Russian doll of murder mysteries, each one tougher to crack open, and it takes care, every couple of pages, to either deliver some wallop or unknot some tangle. On top of that, while poking around Utica, New York (Lentricchia’s Dublin, since he quit criticism) the novel upends a hamper-full of upstate laundry. It exposes how “the Mafia is the great white shark of capitalism,” and, at its most outrageous, claims that Mob collusion swayed the 1948 Presidential election. Yet the fiction also offers more sensitive material. One passage, considering the mobster Morelli’s late (and risky) marriage, notes the frailty in both parties:
[…] he married […] an unattainable beauty, who had refused numerous suitors. She had driven her parents to despair […] Twenty-eight years old. In a small town, in 1946 […] Then Fred Morelli comes into her life. A photo taken in the year of his death shows that he was losing his great Italian hair fast. Jane was the pinnacle, the last challenge, the remote drop-dead beauty who responded to him at the moment he glimpsed the impending loss of his charismatic force.
The format, in short, enables a classic combination of social portrait and crime story. The twofer calls to mind later Richard Price and, without too strenuous a stretch, The Wire,to which Price contributed. Yet such sprawling portrayals of American dysfunction lack the kinetic quality of Lentricchia’s approach. Certainly the author serves up plenty of nasty badinage—de rigueur for noir—yet the thrust and parry are often just out of synch; often, one of his dozen or so significant players trips up, stumbling further from the small-city shadows than he or she intended. Overall the effect is less HBO than Euro: Jean-Claude Izzo’s “Marseilles” trilogycomes to mind. The crime-busters of such continental masters make do with small gains. Their detectives, or detective surrogates, never come across as saintly, like Price’s in The Whites, or superhuman, like in Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The Stateside transplant, as I say, proves successful. Lentricchia’s story compels and pleases, and its final revelations, setting up the President’s champagne in some hole in the wall, offers an imaginative capper beyond the scope of most American mystery. Indeed, the last card trumps three hands at once. The Morelli Thing closes out a trilogy, begun with The Accidental Pallbearer just three years ago. That and The Dog Killer of Utica (2014) all feature Eliot Conte, a former Los Angeles P.I. who claims he’s retired. Back home in Utica, the man struggles to recover from alcoholism and worse—an L.A. marriage that, as it collapsed, may or may not have resulted in the murder of his two children. Nor are these ghosts the only ones, since “this small nest of East Utica streets” was, for decades, a Mafia fiefdom, with Conte’s own father its baron. Old bloodstains linger, the most stubborn and perplexing from the 1947 slaying of Frank Morelli.
The Morelli Thing, as its title suggests, makes sense of that murder, at last. The victim’s marriage isn’t all that yields its secrets, and the explanations work even for those who haven’t read the earlier books, as Lentricchia provides all the necessary detail. He allows a few better outcomes, too. The balance between happy and unhappy is implicit in his protagonist’s name, actually, since in Italian the word conte suggests both a bill due (il conto) and a reliable person (contare su...). In this novel, as in the first two, the prodigal reckons up the toll taken by past misdeeds, the sins of the father, and learns to depend on a few less sinful folks around town, most usefully the African American chief of police. So, too, as befits a fiction covering more than a decade, its hero shows growth. In the first novel, romance blossoms between Conte and a policewoman, she brings out the opera-lover in him, and this Catherine Cruz goes on to become, by Noir Number Three, his wife and the mother of baby Ann. The tough guy is once more a father.
Still, throughout The Morelli Thing Conte can’t stop touching his little girl’s chest, checking her breathing. He’s likewise concerned about the teenage boy he’s adopted, Angel. Now a Dartmouth freshman, in Dog Killer Angel was thirteen, and brutally orphaned by a bizarre multiple-murder. That crime, too, eventually yielded its mysteries to “the unorthodox former private investigator”—as the grown kid of The Morelli Thing refers to his current legal guardian. Yet this facsimile of a father and son also lives under the shadow of old transgressions. In the new novel’s opening pages, an ancient Mafioso smashes the boy’s guitar (why on earth…?), and then that night the thug gets taken out—executed, the button man plainly a pro. With that, we’re careering along breakneck.
If I’ve got reservations, they concern one of the killers, the pro. This character gets little description outside of the dialogue, in keeping with the tropes of hard-boiled rhetoric. Still, nobody says different: she’s a gorgeous black woman, often in Armani. On top of that, she has resources you’d expect of James Bond, from hacker skills to “several passports.” This hit-person had a hand in the previous novel, but in the finale she’s into everything, introducing a strain of exaggeration to the fiction, and I, for one, prefer some of the trilogy’s less gaudy touches, such as those scenes in Dog Killer when Conte and Angel’s actual father set up a shared garden. Nonetheless, I enjoy the bright graffiti with which Sistah Assassin tags crumbling old Utica. More than that, I see how she embodies the restlessness of her creator.
The Edge of the Night: A Confession, Lentricchia’s first creative departure, brought off a memoir well outside the norms. Looping through both high-art obsessions and a low-rung upbringing (his parents weren’t immigrants, but first generation) Edge concludes with Kafka and Fellini, yet handles them with the same street-smart vernacular as has carried the entire text; we don’t follow a plot, but sample a fertile mind. Yet what does the author take up next? Plot, to be sure: first in two novellas and then, more impressively, in The Music of the Inferno (1999). This moving story of identity lost and found, by way of Utica and wide reading, inexplicably dropped Lentricchia from a big publisher to a smaller one, the level at which all his books since have appeared. I find the novel marvelous, not least for its ambition, seeking to meditate on the entire American 20th century.
Now the music of Music, the prose, is implied in the title—and very different from the offbeat percussion of the Conte trio. The early creative work prompted comparisons not just to DeLillo (to whom Edge is dedicated), but also Joyce and Faulkner. Fittingly, then, Lentricchia turned next to his wild Lucchesi constructs, first yoking Wittgenstein to Melville in Lucchesi and the Whale (2001), and then introducing the man to Castro and Saddam in The Book of Ruth (2005), and this novel also visits Utica. Both pick at the nature of art, its potential to redeem and change, but these questions stir us more in The Italian Actress: A Novel (2010), dreamlike and discontinuous, yet engaging and altogether lovely.
Then in 2011, The Sadness of Antonioni proved another buddy-book, in that it made fresh use of the fallen filmmaker of Actress. More intriguingly, though, Sadness unfolded in a looser mode, less mandarin. Ostensibly about art film and academia, the novel soon abandoned such hifalutin business for tales of mob-ridden midcentury Utica. Even doomed old Morelli came onstage. Seen in this context, the Conte novels appear nothing less than a breakthrough for their author, a new form of mastery, and when I look closely at the beautiful black killer of the final book, she suggests, with a wicked smile, that Frank Lentricchia hasn’t yet arrived at his final metamorphosis.