Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! by Mark Binelli
Iconic moments abound from the silent era of film comedy: Buster Keaton standing oblivious as a house falls around him, Charlie Chaplin wrung through the gears of a factory's machine, Harold Lloyd hanging helpless from the descending hands of a clock face. All of these images have in common the threat of imminent injury and even death. Of course, the talkies of our day have fewer of these moments and our comedy has turned increasingly away from the risk of the physical and towards the ease of the verbal barb. Outside of a kid-kicking-Dad-in-the-balls montage on America's Funniest Home Videos, it's infrequent to encounter skilled physical comedy. In his brilliant first novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, Mark Binelli returns us to the faraway era of the physical comedy team, and recasts historical figures Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti as a stage and film comedy duo who take the kind of physical risks performed by their "real" life peers.
In "real" life, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants, a shoe-maker and a fish peddler, amongst other things, and anarchists. The film pitch for their "real" life might go like this: it's Boston, 1920, and a paymaster and his guard are shot and killed. The time is rife with anti-immigrant and anti-radical hysteria. The citizenry is nervous and edgy, whipped into a frenzy about the danger of interal alien enemies. Justice is thirsted for. Two Italian immigrants are arrested. Their English is broken. They're anarchists and both were carrying guns when arrested. They are hustled through the justice system, convicted based on spurious evidence and judicial bias. They wait through seven years of appeals, while an international movement takes ground around them. But all of that passion for justice done right goes for naught and Sacco and Vanzetti are sent to their deaths and, ultimately, their martyrdom.
Of course, the "reel" life of the fictionalized Sacco and Vanzetti reads far different in Binelli's novel. This comedy duo wins its audience by avoiding imminent death. Their most famous routine involves flinging knives at each other and deftly avoiding those knives through skill and luck. Audiences respond to their act with cathartic laughter and awe. Here, their anarchism manifests itself in undermining established order on stage and screen, not on the streets: debates center on how best to start a food fight, not a general strike. The effect of the narrative prompts an overlapping between the fictional and historical, as Binelli lures the reader towards the historical figures through the use of short biographical notes at the beginning of the novel. In this way, Binelli's novel becomes something else entirely: one story on paper, one floating somewhere in the ether of History, both running parallel to each other and both telling us a little something about how stories (both fictional and historical) are made at all.
If Binelli's novel feels like a hybrid of history and fiction in this way, it is also a hybrid of forms. His novel is comprised of biographical notes, synopsis of S & V films, interviews from film magazines, brief "Historical Interludes," sections of "Supplementary Material" and collections of free floating, impressionistic snippets of dialogue.
Binelli's prose trips, falls and stands back up again, establishing a physicality all its own. Sentences are stunted with semi-colons, commas and ellipses. For instance: "So, two guys. One is fat, the other skinny. And then an alley, well-strewn; a series of windows (begrimed); one, finally, popped, shimmied." The reader is often left reeling, untethered a little. There is a bewildering affect, but ultimately the reader is snapped back into the moment, only to come face to face with a famous prizefighter, a traveling Italian fascist or an older Vanzetti quietly pecking at dinner in the corner of an LA eatery.
We are afforded the briefest glimpse into the hearts of our two protagonists and this is perhaps the main disappointment of the novel and, I feel, designed to be so. They are the perfect yin and yang for each other. Sacco (the fat one), is a utopian, ever ready and willing to pull whatever stunt is called for in the given context. Vanzetti (the skinny one) is cautious and pessimistic, "more or less assuming things would remain mired at a comparable level of bad until the sun exploded, at which point they would be slightly worse." Sacco loves his wife, Vanzetti loves his solitude and... that's it! One can't help but feel that these characters are mere sketches, almost barely filled in: there is terribly little flesh and bone. And it is this feeling, too, that stretches back to the historical figures themselves. After all, how much can we know about the "real" Sacco and Vanzetti, how much can we know of our Historical Martyrs at all? If the answer is, "not much," then we are left to apply the flesh and bone ourselves. Binelli's excellent first novel provides the strangest lesson in this and it is a frustrating one, indeed, but I, for one, have gone back to the historical Sacco and Vanzetti since my reading of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! and in that way, I guess they're still alive, still barely alluding all of those flying knives.
Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! by Mark Binelli
Dalkey Archive Press