Joanna Clapps Herman’s grandfather Vito, who inspired the title for this sprawling, vibrant memoir, was a figure who will seem instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in an Italian-American family, and who will intrigue anyone who didn’t. “Anarchism comes from the Greek, meaning without government. Like so many first-born males in Italy, what he most deeply believed was that he should be the only form of governance: he answered to no rule but his own. All his subjects, however, answered to him.”
Each one of Vito’s “subjects”, and more, form a world and a history that will resonate with any American who cherishes a tight-knit family, especially one with immigrant roots. Many readers will recognize Ms. Herman’s story, of standing with her feet in two different cultures, and of struggling, as a woman growing up in a patriarchal tradition, to define herself in modern America. But she uses her family’s stories to go deeper into that struggle, to show why a modern and highly educated American woman should want to make her peace with that old, patriarchal world. It is a messy, sometimes frightening place, in which a violent father might drive a brilliant son to suicide, but it is also filled with the wisdom and passion that could bring a hungry young man to propose to the shyest girl in the kitchen, who puts the beauty of her heart into a bowl of meatball soup so sublime that it “sets a soul straight when all the world is wrong.”
Most admirable is Ms. Herman’s success at making true, compelling art out of material that could so easily have been treated with pure sentimentality and nostalgia. That’s what really sets The Anarchist Bastard apart. Readers in search of a follow-up to Eat Pray Love or a similar first-person memoir will be challenged by the scope of The Anarchist Bastard; readers who expect every book about the Italian-American experience to include references to the Mafia will definitely be disappointed. Annie Lanzillotto, Bronx Rock-Poet, said it well at a recent reading: “Rip the bandaid off quick. Grandpa’s truths have come out. The tough guy breaks down in tears for an apology. The gorgeous woman boils her baby in the bath. The children break the ice with a rock to retrieve water from the well, and take it on the chin besides from Papa’s open hand. Sausage stealing, citizenship, threading the eye of the needle into clean licked lace—soon we will all, like these characters, be ‘breathing amber.’”
This is a real family’s history, told in a down-to-earth yet lyrical manner, which may prove a challenging read, but will remain with you as a beautifully told, true and definitive story of the Italian-American experience.
State University of New York, ISBN: 978-1-4384-3631-9, 250 pages, $24.95