October 2008

Michael Madison


An Interview with John Domini

Stolen antiquities, small-time thugs, a sultry femme fatale. Such is the stuff of John Domini’s new novel, A Tomb on the Periphery, a book that takes the trappings of noir then transcends the genre.

Tomb is more than the story of one young man’s struggle to free himself from the underworld he’s forced by need to inhabit. Domini strives to portray Naples, Italy and its surroundings and its people. In his Naples, plush NATO offices and a 700 year-old university stand along with neighborhoods whose hungry youth see few options beyond the Camorra. The world of crime the novel’s main character finds himself mired in is one of grit and need, not glamour.

A theft sets the tale in motion, and from there readers are guided through a city bursting at the seams. African refugees cling to hope for the paperwork that could mean survival. American troops inhabit a California-style subdivision fast erected over water-buffalo dairy -- mozzarella -- lands in the eighties, a mere twenty years past. On Naples’s marginal outskirts, the protagonist’s family comes in and out of focus throughout the book, struggling with both mother’s medical bills and the constant temptation of crime. A Tomb on the Periphery is a lush and generous work, one deeply interested in the hearts of a city, and the hearts of men.

I interviewed the author in Denver following his reading at the Tattered Cover.


Fabbrizio, your main character, carries a pocket-sized statue of Penates throughout A Tomb on the Periphery. Who is Penates?

Every Roman household had the Lares and the Penates. They were household gods out of Roman mythology, which esteemed the domos, the home. These gods protected the home, and each had its own special area. According to old mythologies one was more female and one more male. They blurred and grew more complicated over time, and like many other Roman artifacts the Penates especially came to emphasize the phallus. So when you see a Penates in a museum it’s often got an exaggerated three-point stance.

It is exactly the sort of sacred object, good luck object that a young man around Naples would carry. A vast majority of them carry some sort of little sacred object, another common one is the corno, the twisted horn, it wards off bad luck. They have special rings, other good luck charms. This is just the sort of thing Fabbrizio would carry. He was particularly fascinated by it because it was an antique. It seems to be a genuine Roman relic that he found in an open supply cabinet during his brief stint in the university. It’s a stolen antiquity from which he is deriving male potency, and other potency. He needs every break he can get, Fabbrizio.

So there’s this Roman statuary, and early on I noticed that many of the descriptions of landscape felt mythic. The streetlamps lighting the entrance to the archeological site Fabbrizio steals into early in the story, you described them as “the moon’s incandescent twins.” I thought of a painting by Goya.

The mythic quality is definitely deliberate. There’s by no means one-on-one allusions being worked out, but the mythic quality is meant to pervade the book, which to some extent is a ghost story and a fairy tale. Without this element of storytelling our lives amount to very little. They’re just buried heaps of rubble unless story energizes them, validates them, valorizes them.

These mythic, archaic elements are there through the whole book, then at certain points you flesh out the reality of your story in terms of comic books, and Hollywood. You have your main character considering himself by way of Quentin Tarantino extras. I was hoping you could say a few words on Tomb’s relationship to realism.

I think that at bottom all my novels are psychological realism. There’s no way around that. And it is difficult -- though it has been done wonderfully -- it is difficult to write a novel without psychological realism. I would say that even a great novel that seems to stretch away from realism, like Invisible Cities, depends on certain core points of recognition. This is what a city is like. This is what a suburb is like. This is what a city of the dead is like, a cemetery.

That said, I would say my book has more to do with recognizable emotional changes, the satisfaction of someone having moved through an emotional change, and having suffered it with them. And it’s saturated in economics. People are driven by economics throughout, so in that sense it’s nineteenth century realism like Dickens. It’s all about the money in Dickens.

You also described the book as part ghost story.

The touches of the surreal are in a way calling Fabbrizio to better. Calling him to be more than a criminal selling to anybody who’s got a Euro. Calling him to do right, especially by the African immigrant family who he begins to befriend and protect in the last part of the book. And to do right by the necklace whose theft sets the whole plot in motion. The necklace itself. To save it, in a way. That too is part of realism, it is not outside realism, but he’s pulled to it by the supernatural touches.

What happens that moment you’re about to do something shameful and you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. What happens there? Is that a supernatural moment? Is that a realistic moment? You catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and say, Am I going to be that guy? That girl?

Your novel has great richness of detail, from descriptions of the architecture of ancient Italy, to the mechanics of jewelry making and metallurgy. Could you say a bit about your research process and how you integrate research into your creative writing?

Research takes many forms. There is also the simple matter of going to the library, which I felt would be a much better source for me than the Internet. Going to the library, and reading books. I needed to read around the subject as well as on it -- I didn’t need to know the name of a treaty that was signed in 1813, I needed to know the whole subject. But I would say that most important was the research that I did face-to-face. Talking to people, talking to jewelers, visiting jeweler’s shops. I interviewed a man who held a fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum. An Irish guy who had enormous enthusiasm for the ancient tradition of jewelry making and metallurgy and goldsmithing, and then clammed up and actually walked away when I asked a couple of questions about making fakes and selling fakes. He would not talk about it, and he walked away. To some extent his refusal to talk was more revealing than the things he told me. This was in Manhattan in, I think, 2003.

Then when it comes to actual writing it’s crucial that it all come through character and a shifting sense of personality. That there’s nothing of what my wife, who’s a science fiction-fantasy novelist, calls an "info-dump." Where suddenly the story breaks down and somebody explains to you why there’s this enormous shift in the sociological makeup of this society that created this advanced mutant strand. That would be sci-fi/fantasy. If the book works for you it’s because this information, which is second-hand to Fabbrizio, comes out in that way.

Maybe I couldn’t write straight genre if I wanted to. It’s crucial in Raymond Chandler that he’s showing us the real Los Angeles, which in those days, I think he said it had all the atmosphere of a Dixie cup...What was it? "All the culture and refinement of a Dixie cup." Something like that.

Which is why Elliott Gould is such a better Marlowe than Humphrey Bogart.

Yeah, exactly. In Chandler the plots are pretty loose.

Why did you choose the scaffolding of genre? You use the classic mystery moves, the sexy emergence of the femme fatale, that sort of thing.

Some of it is always personal, isn’t it? Some of it is the fact that my mother was forever reading mysteries, and still loves a good mystery. I can’t follow her to Agatha Christie, those seem preposterous to me, but Dashiell Hammett at his best really gets me. James M. Cain, various hardboiled guys really work. And in the European tradition the noir, the mystery novel, the crime novel is not a lower form of literature. In Europe great artists work in mystery and in crime. Among the Italians the most famous is a guy named Leonardo Sciascia, and he’s fantastic. And many of the great classics depend on crime. Right up to the present day you’ve got Houellebecq, who to some extent is a science fiction novelist. Houellebecq to some extent is a crime novelist. I could go on with the list. Perfume, Smilla’s Sense of Snow...

The femme fatale and all that, those are based on the reality of my experience in Italy and the contemporary Italian experience. It’s often the goal of a young Italian playboy to score an American chick while she’s over there. But it’s also the goal of the American chick -- and I speak deliberately in clichés here. It’s the goal of the Italian playboy and the American woman on vacation to have a romantic encounter. And who’s to say who is used? I won’t name names, but I know from personal experiences, people close to me, people in my family in Naples, that in some ways the American woman has the advantage over the Italian. The tables are turned in terms of power dynamics. It’s a part of the reality over there. The Americans are using us, just as we are using the Americans. “Let the Americans pay!” is a common expression I’ve heard. And this is a country that likes Americans, Italy.

And sometimes those conventional elements -- crime, women -- set things in motion the most realistically.

Probably everything I do will have some kind of crime in it. But it won’t be a straight crime novel. The first novel I wrote, Talking Heads ’77, certainly had crime. There was a murder in the middle of that... or was it manslaughter?

I’m just by nature kind of active and dramatic, and my work will probably reflect that. I probably never will write anything like The Catcher in the Rye, apart from questions of quality. It’s a book I really respect and admire. Let’s say Catcher in the Rye is a great book. Maybe I’ll never write anything that great, but also I’ll never write anything in which so little happens. He basically just walks around Manhattan and throws his money away.

He orders a hooker.

Yeah, and not much happens with the hooker does it? That’s the closest thing to real action in the book is the hooker’s pimp comes in and abuses Holden just briefly. I probably won’t write a book like that.

I greatly admire James Joyce. Ulysses turned my life around. But it’s crucial in Ulysses and in Portrait of the Artist that very little actually happens. Especially in Ulysses. At the climax, Stephen Dedalus, dead drunk, gets punched by a British soldier. He’s taken home by Leopold Bloom and there’s a renewal there, it’s a wonderful thing. I’m probably not going to write a novel like that ever. Apart from questions of quality and style. More will happen when my protagonist gets dead drunk in the middle of the night.

But you’re still going to be working with your themes?

Tomb is a novel of character, and of theme. It’s a wrestling with the possibility of heaven or hell, a fallen state or a redemptive state. The criminal elements, the breaking the rules elements, contribute to that. I would say I had this novel when I had Fabbrizio’s character, when I had his moral struggle in mind, and when I had the necklace. I did not have the novel when I constructed some interesting plot to be sorted out. Some interesting series of clues or something. Because he doesn’t solve a crime, exactly. He writes himself.

It’s interesting to hear about the seeds of a story.

The other thing I’d add is that, hopefully, if Fabbrizio makes it, it reflects in some way on his city. He’s from the dregs of Naples. He is from a suburb, a generation that turns to crime. And if he can transcend and get out, then perhaps his city can as well. Naples, in effect, saved my own life. I went in mid-life and for the first time in a long time. Heartbroken, divorced, and I wasn’t published anywhere near the way I wanted to be. And Naples, degraded and chaotic as it was, got me living again, it got me writing. I’ve wanted to return a favor.