How Fires End, a novel
by Marco Rafalà
Marco Rafalà rouses us to applause with How Fires End. The novel teeters suspensefully between the good-hearted and bloody-minded. One character, cut down too young, lingers like a painful memory, and one of the survivors may present a still more tragic profile. I’ve got a couple of cavils, too—but before getting into the text further, there’s a bug I’ve got to get out of my system.
Among the wiles of the book business, none seem more dubious than the label “immigrant novel.” What sort of lumpy catchall could contain, on the one hand, the Caribbean blues of Edwige Danticat, and on the other the West African call-and-response of Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche? Obviously, both women generate drama out of coming to America. Yet they have many other concerns as well, idiosyncratic concerns, and besides that there’s the problem of their narrow historical moment. Contemporary novelists like these two speak from the surge at the end of the last century. The 1990s saw the greatest numbers of immigrants to date, according to statistics kept decade by decade. For these arrivals, inevitably, relocation felt little like it did to Henry Roth’s tenement Jews, in Call It Sleep (1934), or the nearby Italians of Pietro Di Donato’s Christ In Concrete (1937). What the publishing industry now calls “the immigrant novel,” rather, rides the N out to Queens. It’s got a fresh demographic, with its own compelling sagas. But as these see print, they don’t define a type so much as add unexpected colors to an ongoing fabric-work—that of a crazy-quilt nation.
To put my argument the other way, Ashkenazi Jews or Southern Italians are still coming to America, and their struggles are still novel-worthy. Case in point, Rafalà’s bruising back-and-forth with his Sicilian heritage. The opening pages of How Fires End offer a kind of invocation, taking us back to the old country and its icons. The people of Melilli, a town on the coast, pray for protection to St. Sebastian; they venerate his statue. Out to sea, meanwhile, the volcano Etna threatens infernal devastation.
As the novel develops, both supernatural powers throw their weight around. Before that, however, the story retreats briefly to relative normalcy of Middletown, Connecticut, in the mid-1980s. Here one finds “Little Melilli,” a neighborhood with its own church of St. Sebastian. At times the Italian elements feel harmless—the Fonz. The point of view for this section is a middle-schooler’s, a boy with a love of Ray Bradbury and, on his Walkman, The Cure in heavy rotation. Yet his very name, David Marconi, raises questions that reach back across the Atlantic, to his family’s experience in the Second World War. The Old World sinks its hooks into the New, and fittingly, the two later sections of the book take place largely in Italy. Much of this action occurs decades ago, to boot, and the perspective is first David’s father Sal (long before he had a son), and second their scarred family friend Vincenzo. Overall it’s a remarkable risk, playing fast and loose with Aristotle’s Unities, and it’s a praiseworthy novel that can generate compelling storylines nonetheless.
Back in Middleton, David’s nemesis also has Mellili roots, and this adds to the viciousness of their confrontations. Each time they butt heads, the rising action ratchets up, and it doesn’t help that both boys have an uncomprehending old man who swears in Sicilian. As for David’s mother, she wasn’t quite so tethered to la Patria, but she died years back. He’s got a loving aunt but, as his father’s sister, she observes strict boundaries. Then too, David’s stabs at self-assertion include happier episodes, like a make-out session Rafalà renders with fine befuddlement: “We talked about nothing but it felt like everything…. The heat of Em’s body simmered inches from mine.” Puppy love, however, isn’t powerful enough to free this youngster from his claustrophobic immigrant circle. Even their scarred friend Vincenzo, though not from Melilli, proves mysteriously close.
Meantime, whispers persist of a “curse” on the family, and on this the adults maintain a damaging silence. They spur David to dangerous action—and on that, a reviewer ought to maintain silence. Rather, I’ll just reiterate that Rafalà’s radical subsequent move, taking the story overseas and into the past, feels natural.
In the new setting we encounter, more than once, the novel’s defining vision: a home ground blasted beyond recovery. As the War is ending, for instance, the runaway infantryman Vincenzo stumbles back onto his former block in Rome,
I noticed a break in the row of houses. The muscles in my jaw tensed. The image my eyes showed me blurred for a second. And in that second, it was as if I fell out of this world into a nightmare where someone replaced the house I grew up in with this charred stone frame standing in front of me, three stories of burnt bones…
Such a “nightmare” doesn’t loom behind every immigrant—though a contemporary Syrian might well have witnessed worse. In this novel, in any case, such corpse-littered ruins provide the landmarks along its transcontinental way. As for signs of better, moments of relief, How Fires End offers a classic stay against the lost, namely, storytelling. The opening has those legends of St. Sebastian, and later David likes to recall his mother sharing the myths behind the constellations, and later still a doomed soldier’s sole consolation may be his talk of ultimate righteousness and triumph.
The counterpoint works, it helps sustain the narrative, but now and again I find both the opposed elements belabored. How often do we have to see some precious site “broken at the seams?” And would a grunt in a bunker really compare his commander to “the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt?” Besides that, the novel gives short shrift to a couple of key women characters, the worst case being David’s mother. But then again, Rafalà awards the final word, perhaps an affirmation, to the boy’s aunt. So too, his repetitions and intensity are in keeping with his protagonists’ narrow world, with its emotions so near the surface. Clearly this author has taken pains to bridge the pitfalls of his ambitious enterprise. Clearly the “immigrant novel” has a smart and resourceful new proponent, if one who doesn’t fit neatly into the current industry niche.