December 2011

Josh Zajdman


The Break by Pietro Grossi, translated by Howard Curtis

Pietro Grossi's first novel, The Break, is about billiards (Italian or otherwise) in the same way that Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River" is about fishing -- nominally, if at all. The heavy-handedness of the connections between billiards and Dino's life continually batter the reader, whether it's the quoting of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle on the title page, or the tin-eared simile of the ball moving "as soft as a bread roll."

The comparison to Hemingway is no accident either. Instead, it is practically invited. In his author bio, Grossi modestly mentions that "inspired by writers like Hemingway and JD Salinger, he has been writing since the age of eight." After his prize-winning short story collection Fists, surely a novel seemed like the next step. Unlike Lorrie Moore and Don DeLillo, regrettably, Grossi is not conversant in both forms and his stories far outshine the novel. In 2007, the novel was published in Italian under the original title L'acchito. Literally translated as "The Glance," a far more accurate title, one gets a better idea of what's in store, as glance functions in two ways within the narrative.

Primarily, the novel offers a cursory, even glib, glance at several complicated themes including marital discord, impending parenthood, modernization, political corruption, and others affecting its young Italian protagonist, Dino. Relying on irritatingly obfuscatory descriptive passages when introducing his characters, Grossi gradually creates this Italian town caught in the crosshairs between technology and tradition. Think Cranford meets Cinecitta.

All at once life had taken a different turn. What, up until that moment, he had recognised, consciously or unconsciously, as the world, had turned all at once into a place in which people walked down streets where there was no specific order. From one moment to the next, what Dino had innocently thought of as perfect was flawed by a logic that didn't exist or at least a logic he didn't know.

It's difficult to appreciate this introspective consideration of Dino's daily life, and its subsequent shift, as it seems especially affected in contrast to the stilted dialogue of Grossi's characters. It's Carver lite. Shortly after the novel begins, Dino's boss, Giani, calls him into his office. "I need to tell you the way things are. They're going to use asphalt." Exchanges, like this between Dino and his cousin, are commonplace:

"Listen, what is all that stuff on the roads?"

"What stuff?"

"I don't know... it's black."

"It's asphalt."

Dino as a stonelayer, a member of the civic corps, is firmly entrenched in a practice of the past. As a result of the change, Dino's culture and life are both immediately and irrevocably altered, forcing him to move forward in unexplored directions, and without time for analysis. Between the shift and his newly pregnant wife, Dino must turn to his only outlet: billiards. The secondary definition of "glance," which serves as a central part of the novel is an occurrence in Italian billiards when the cue ball strikes another off center and sends it careening at a horizontal angle. Whereas the "break" of the American title connotes an introductory move of diffusion, and one more violent, during an American billiards game.

After Giani's unfortunate news, Dino has a break(down) of sorts. So, does the town around him. There is unrest among Dino's road crew, at home, in the town at large, and within himself. This is all catalyzed by the decision to use asphalt. Seemingly trying to employ Hemingway's famed iceberg theory, Grossi displays the unrest amongst the town and its denizens just briefly on the surface, with lots of rumbling beneath. However, Dino, Ciro, and other characters never reach the heights, or should I say depths, of characters like Nick Adams, Frances Macomber, or most importantly, Jake Barnes, as they struggle to say very little and have it mean very much. Instead, they are poorly rendered with little detail, and even less introspection. When the prose attempts a quasi-philisophical tone, continually throughout the novel, it seems mannered and issued straight from the author's pen. This isn't to say that a civic worker couldn't reflect in such a way, but instead, to highlight the difference in Dino's sentiments and their method of expression.

In the translator's preface, Curtis outlines the instructions for Italian billiards. "This game is played with only three balls" and "the table has no pockets." It's not goal-oriented, or as busy as American billiards. Instead, it's built more on delicacy, strategy, patience and, as described in the novel, a sense of community. Early in the novel, Ciro, challenges Dino to hit a ball and have it come all the way back to rest where it started. Dino nearly has a breakdown, the first example of his mental fragility, in attempting this task over a period of months, so as to gain Ciro's approval. As I read, I wondered whether the novel doesn't function the same way. It keeps trying and trying and trying. The frustration increases, until finally, the novel ends with a tacked on, painfully sensational ending and a strange segway into political violence. Finally, Dino realizes "the ball never came back to the same place." That same sentiment could work for the reading experience: no matter how hard you tried, hoped or wished, the novel, like the ball, always misses its mark. 

The Break by Pietro Grossi, translated by Howard Curtis
Pushkin Press
ISBN: 978-1906548469
128 pages