Pietro Grossi’s The Break

Pietro Grossi~Italy

He remembered when as a child, without his aunt knowing, he would go with his dad from time to time to play a couple of games.  He hadn’t been particularly fascinated–as a friend of his had confessed years later he had been–by the sight of all those men joking among themselves, surrounded by a fog of cigarette smoke and the litter of wine bottles.  He had found nothing to admire in those red noses and those yellowed teeth and those swollen bellies.  What Dino hadn’t been able to take his eyes off was the surface of the table–those hands forming a bridge on the baize to support the cue, those perfectly polished pieces of wood moving like silk over the hard, calloused workers’ hands, the clacking of the cues on the surface of the balls and that sharp but muted noise of the balls of hitting each other and rebounding off the cushions, that imperceptible sound of the pins as they were knocked down by the balls and fell on the baize.  And above all, the automatic, elegant movements of the men at the table.  It was as if there, on that green fragment of the world, each man found his own dignity.

Italy’s young novelist, Pietro Grossi, admits that his writing heroes are Ernest Hemingway and J. D. Salinger.  The direct, robust prose of his last effort, a collection of three stories entitled Fists, is equally prominent in his new novel, The Break.  But perhaps, in The Break, the is a slight maturation that Grossi has undergone.  Still the man’s man, focusing on topics such as boxing and billiards and centering his stories around male relationships (brothers, close friends, mentors), Grossi adds a bit of introspection and familial responsibility to the main character in The Break, Dino. 

Dino is a solitary man, married and happy in his job as a brick layer for the city.  His real passion, billiards, he tends to after work in the tavern of his friend and mentor, Cirillo.  Ever Since Dino was a teenager, he wanted Cirillo to teach him all that he knew about the games of billiards.  Cirillo tells him that as soon as he learns to hit the ball and have it return to the exact same place, every time, then he will teach him.  And after time, Cirillo notices that Dino has evolved into an excellent billiards player:

Cirillo often watched Dino playing alone.  A year earlier, he had even stood there watching him for an entire evening, without Dino noticing.  And every time he watched him play, he wondered if Dino would ever beat him.  It was hard to say, but one thing was certain–if it did ever happen, it would be a great game.  Thinking about it, Cirillo couldn’t really figure out why it was that Dino had never managed to beat him–he never missed a shot, always got the cover.  If you looked closely–not that he would ever admit it–Cirillo actually made a few more mistakes than Dino did.  And yet, when they came to add up the points, Cirillo’s shots always scored more, and by the end of the game they weighed in the balance like blocks of granite.

Dino is a man who likes things to be structured, logical, and rational.  This action leads to this and a string of these actions will produce this outcome.  You lay bricks one after another, in precisely the right place, soon you will have a street.  You shoot a ball at a specific angle, it will produce the perfect shot.  So his life is filled with a series of concrete steps for him to obtain the result he is working for, but trouble arises when illogical things happen without reason.  When he loses his job to the decision to bring tar into the town to pave all the streets, he is forced to either quit or work with tar.  This goes against all that he is, all that his father, who was also a bricklayer, taught him.  The machine that lays the tar becomes a intrinsic threat, an affront to who he is as an individual:

That vile beast appeared at the end of the street, puffing and shaking.  A gigantic mouth full of black steaming sludge gaped open, as if stupefied, with pieces of tar dripping from it like some demonic slime.  As the beast advanced, it was as if someone was twisting its guts with a pair of pliers, making it creak and groan with pain, forcing it to squeeze out into the sky that smoke as dense and black as effluent from the sewers.  As it came closer, it gradually slowed down and sank into itself, hissing and blowing white steam from its ears. It gave a final belch, a lump of black sludge rolled down one side of its foaming mouth and settle on the rest of the steaming heap.

He sold me on the evils of tar in that paragraph alone. Besides the nefarious impact of tar on him and the town, other tragedy and truths besiege young Dino.   What ultimately happens is that he learns to continue on with his life always returning to the safety and comfort of angles.  He always returns to billiards. 

Grossi also delivers some nice, subdued characters that buttress the reserved nature of Dino.  Duilo, the old man who worked with Dino’s father, and now serves as a surrogate father fofr Dino as well as a co-worker. Saaed, a brawny man who is also a skilled bricklayer and Blondie, a young silent kid who Dino takes a liking to because of his work ethic.   And as for Dino’s wife, Sofia,  Grossi doesn’t dwell on women characters nor does he make them extremely complex.  Sofia is a subtle counterpart to Dino.   Neither of them speak a great deal to each other or in general, but there is a tacit form of communication that Grossi shows well.

In a sense, this can be seen as a coming of age novel.  Although it happens later in Dino’s life, it is about how he copes with life once the life he had created for himself is dismantled.  It has a languid, somber tone even though the language is direct.  There is a ruminative quality that feels like the slower pace of a small Italian village which is oddly comforting to the reader.  What a man finds hidden deep in himself can be surprising and empowering, and can lead him to see his life with a wider field of vision.  Grossi’s Dino learns that every angle has a chance to be a new opportunity. 

The Break
By Pietro Grossi
Translated by Howard Curtis
Pushkin Press
Paperback, 110 pp.
ISBN: 9781906548469

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