Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pass the pasta and the spuds, please

"Gaelic and Garlic," set in mid-20th century Worcester, is author Michael F. Bisceglia's fictional memoir of a boy's life in the first-generational Italian and Irish clans of Worcester. Written in the first person, from the recollections of a youngster who grew up in Main South, delivered the Gazette faithfully, and bounced from Italian to Irish family rules every day, acquiring some bruises in the process, the book is full of entertaining bits.
Clearly, this is a past close to the author's heart, and it reads that way. Bisceglia has combined the old Irish sayings and ways of life, contrasting them with the relatively conservative ways of Italian relatives for one Lou Mangossi, scion of the Mangossi and Bresnihan families. Memories are long and tempers a bit raw each time there's a clash—which appears to be any time more than two relatives gather together. There are 60 cousins and all of the attached adult figures to the family, so any event is big. This includes wakes and funerals, weddings, family parties, the classroom and the streets of Worcester.
There's lively dialogue, albeit in a central casting kind of Irish or Italian voice. There are also a few tender moments within the family, but for the most part the book follows a pattern of quirky family stories, enabling the young narrator to introduce his relatives—all of them improbably hilarious—and let them do their thing. After awhile, there's a feeling of spinning around the family merry-go-round, witnessing humorous exchanges that are strictly for the family books. I began to lose interest due to its extravagant exaggerations; too many overhyped Irish stereotypes are interwoven in the story for wit's sake, not actuality. Not all the Irish carry on at wakes the way the Bresnihans do, though I do remember they were more fun in those days. It's clever writing but somewhat overdone in its tiresome witticisms and descriptions.
There are moments that sparkle. Bisceglia finds his narrative voice halfway through the book and forgos much of the forced hilarity for actual storytelling. Lou Mangossi Sr., instead of demonstrations of sympathy, teaches his son the right way to fight so he'll be safer next time he's mugged on the streets of Worcester while delivering papers to three-decker tenement houses. When young Lou comes home with so many Christmas tips that it outranks his father's weekly earnings, his mother gently dissuades him from sharing that information and humiliating his father. Enjoyable too is the description of a newspaper carrier's daily job:
"On any given winter day, a kid could be bitten by one or more dogs; receive a mild case of frost bite; slip on an unsalted walk and break a leg; have all of his papers stolen (sometimes more than once); fall down an unlit flight of stairs; step into a slightly frozen puddle and receive a full boot of slushy water; or  simply be robbed."
There were times when it all nearly collided at once in young Lou's life.
I liked the more subtle references to his Irish mother's bad cooking, having grown up with similarly gruesome Irish cuisine at home. If it wasn't burned, it wasn't done. Mangossi's mother, Mae, comes through as a strong matriarch, running the family admirably while her husband worked. She keeps all of the family's history—good and bad—and tempers her chores with old songs, as did my own mother. The author's storytelling rather shines as he recounts a tale of meanly tricking his poor mother into performing Irish songs for the combined eighth-grade classes at his Catholic school, only to find she is as good as her word when it comes to performing. He also nicely portrays an elderly retired school teacher on his paper route who takes the time to soothe a young boy's fears of growing up and making his way in the world; she reveals a personal tragedy in the process.
There are some good chuckles in the book, and a well-drawn narrator. Folks who remember the "old" days of Worcester may enjoy the places he recalls and the memories he recollects through his character.
The book is self-published. Bisceglia, a former teacher, lives in Hampton, N.H., but grew up locally. "Gaelic and Garlic" may be purchased online through Amazon, or at bookstores.