More Noodling, Please

Jessica Olin

  • The Bystander's Scrapbook by Joseph Torra
    Weidenfeld, 186 pp, £7.99, November 2001, ISBN 0 575 06767 5

Joseph Torra’s latest novel, The Bystander’s Scrapbook, opens in 1984, the year Ronald Reagan was re-elected President. In Somerville, Massachusetts, as in the rest of the country, corporate growth and gentrification are changing the face of neighbourhoods that once boasted a mix of ethnic traditions: a tenement that housed Hispanic families is overhauled and made into condos for white yuppies; colourful dives, the Italian cobbler’s shop and the Greek breakfast joint are torn down to make room for a new mall. Gregorio, a former PhD student, works double shifts as a dishwasher at weekends and spends his free time aimlessly reading, drinking and doing research in ‘no organised way’. Having dropped out of graduate school, he has abandoned his dissertation on the suppression of free speech in America during the second decade of the 20th century. His girlfriend, Carol, is a poet and X-ray technician; they hit the punk music scene together and argue about marriage and politics. Carol believes in social reform through democracy: Gregorio has lost faith in activism.

One night, at a meeting of Carol’s Dante reading group, Gregorio meets Vin, a dishevelled, computer-savvy fiftysomething who secretly houses the country’s largest anarchist archive. Vin claims never to have paid income tax and has a series of fake IDs that allow him access to the libraries of Harvard, MIT and Boston University. He is working on a book whose topic is amorphous but centres on the history of Italian-American anarchism. The two men share a passion for history, and Vin has a seemingly endless capacity for debate; he and Gregorio discuss every aspect of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial without ever establishing Vin’s opinion as to their guilt or innocence. He drives an old Dodge Dart like a maniac, ranting to Gregorio about technology and the homogenisation of American culture. These diatribes find a wide range of targets: rock music, fluorescent clothes, the year-round availability of foreign fruit and the decline of public speaking. Vin is especially incensed that the Reagan Administration’s policies are eating away at, and in some cases completely dismantling, social reforms established over the course of the century. He believes that political apathy is caused by ignorance of history, ignorance particularly about the struggles that resulted in things people now take for granted, like the eight-hour working day:

People think unions are anachronistic . . . Christ, even the students paying attention come out of an American history course viewing labour history the same way they view slavery, like it happened in the past and has since been cured . . . Teachers are afraid to talk about social class or class conflict. And the standard immigrant story they teach is always the rags-to-riches story. Let’s face it, the rags-to-riches story is a fraction of 1 per cent of all immigrant experiences. It’s always progress, onward and upward, instead of real experience. History should be more than biographies of so-called great men and grand events.

Torra’s own life attests to the truth of Vin’s diatribe. It seems that his family did the ‘immigrant hop’ from the old country to Boston’s North End, an Italian enclave, and finally to the suburbs. Both parents were poor; his mother got rickets from malnutrition. Torra himself grew up ‘angry and opinionated’, and though he came of age in the 1960s, there is nothing trendy about his social awareness. He understands that the American Dream is for many people a false narrative, and is concerned about the stories that are being told as fact. Inspired by the collaging of texts in novels by Dos Passos and by the writings of Howard Zinn, Torra has produced a novel that demonstrates what an alternative history – the story of minor players and failed revolutionaries – might look like.

In The Bystander’s Scrapbook, eight separate strands are woven together to create a complex narrative that jumps between past and present. First, Vin reveals that he has discovered a small treasure: the previously undiscovered memoirs of Errico Malatesta, the Italian anarchist who lived out his last days under house arrest by order of Mussolini. Born to the wealthy Rimini family, Malatesta turned over the property he inherited to his tenants and put his money into propaganda, embarking on a life dedicated to revolution. Unfortunately, few people were ready for his idealism; his writings document a comedy of errors as he travels through the Italian countryside, trying to stir the peasants to revolt. His schemes are routinely undercut by missed connections, the treachery of informers, and the masses simply failing to show up. In Taranto, five hundred revolutionaries are expected, but only two men answer the call; Malatesta is forced to hide the rifles he’s brought and shoot his horse. In Bologna, someone alerts the police, who ‘found the plot so ridiculous they did not believe the anarchists were serious’. Malatesta is undeterred; as he sees it, each small act of insurrection contributes, however indirectly, to the eventual fall of the state. Like Vin, he believes that history is made not just by presidents and coups, but also by ordinary interactions: ‘The professional historian may prefer . . . large-scale conflicts between nations and classes, wars, revolutions . . . but what is really much more significant are the innumerable daily contacts between individuals . . . which are the true substance of social life.’

Gregorio also finds in Vin’s microfilm collection help for his own pet project, a study of the American activist Herbert Minderman. From 1912 to 1914 Minderman was in and out of prison with other striking members of union chapter Local 66, campaigning for free speech and the right to organise. The police were hardly sympathetic to their cause, and Minderman’s journals record a series of abuses: prisoners were beaten with clubs, violently hosed down, and forced to kiss the American flag and sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. Excerpts from these writings appear sporadically throughout the book, although Gregorio does not directly discuss the project.

Another plot line concerns Carlo Valdinocci, a young anarchist living in Massachusetts during the First World War. He travels to Mexico to help with the revolution but becomes disillusioned and returns to Boston, where his involvement in various subversive activities forces him into hiding. He plots a dramatic act of violence, and pines for his sometime lover, Christina Donato. ‘Tina’, too, is an anarchist and under the name Rossa Nero writes for the Watchdog, an underground newspaper, railing against the ‘capitalist war’ and accusing the US and its European allies of hypocrisy: ‘The war is not about freedom, except for the powers that be to continue their control at the cost of freedom for others.’ She also examines the way the US Government used the Espionage Act to arrest and prosecute union leaders, socialists, immigrants and other undesirables – Big Bill Haywood and 164 other IWW leaders were found guilty of conspiring to disrupt the war effort.

To survive, Christina and her anarchist friends raid unlocked warehouses and break into rich people’s houses, selling the silver and valuables they steal on the black market. When she becomes pregnant with Carlo’s child, she must decide how committed she truly is to the cause. Carlo’s mother, Giulia, meanwhile, remembers the poverty of her childhood in an Italian village and worries about her son’s safety. Finally, there is a mysterious stream of writing that runs under the heading ‘The Notebooks’ and covers an exhaustive array of political topics. As the stories progress it becomes clear that they are all linked.

Joseph Torra’s previous novels, the loosely connected My Ground trilogy, have all been set in Massachusetts – Torra has lived in Somerville for 20 years – in the relatively recent past. Gas Station, his first novel, is told from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy working at his father’s business during the 1960s. In Tony Luongo the title character records his sex-obsessed, manic life as a department-store salesman during the 1970s and 1980s. My Ground, the last novel in the series, tells the story of Laurel Bell, a middle-aged housecleaner with a history of mental breakdowns. Each is driven by the personality of its central character. In Gas Station, the teenage narrator discovers Hendrix while the older workers still listen to doo-wop and Vietnam hovers just out of sight. Tony Luongo’s anything-goes life of sex and drugs leaves him with a gnawing fear of Aids in the wary 1980s. And in My Ground, Laurel’s employer fills the emptiness of her days with tabloid television, caught up in the media’s hunger for scandal. These characters are creatures of their time, but their thoughts and feelings are the novels’ main interest.

The Bystander’s Scrapbook places issues first. Creating fictional versions of the sources historians traditionally use – journals, memoirs, letters, pamphlets – but focusing on those who wouldn’t normally make it to the books, Torra has put together the kind of alternative historical record his characters crave. Sometimes, it works: Minderman’s accounts of police brutality and Rossa Nero’s articles on the arrests surrounding the Espionage Act are very effective and Vin’s explanation of the part US policies in Israel played in the Gulf War sounds eerie in the context of the current war: ‘it’s inevitable that we go to war again. In fact, I’d be shocked if we didn’t.’ At the restaurant where Gregorio works, huge amounts of food go to waste each night, while the growing homeless population is driven from a makeshift Tent City: the connection between poverty and waste doesn’t need to be spelled out.

Unfortunately, as Vin observes, labour history and anarchism are minor footnotes in most American history courses, mostly because those courses still focus on ‘grand’ events and people, but also because class consciousness isn’t something that Middle America has much grip on. Torra throws out a flurry of names – Big Bill Haywood, the Wobblies, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs – but for most novel-readers that is no longer enough.

Perhaps it’s because the puzzle is so big that the writing suffers. Too many characters live in the service of the author’s agenda: an Italian farmer in his sixties works ‘with the strength of two young men’; the village women all cook ‘exquisitely’. The home of two ageing activists is ‘simple: furniture, drapes and wallpaper dulled and worn but the dwelling was immaculately clean’. Even Vin’s quirky persona suffers from the fact that his rants echo those of every ageing liberal professor in literature and film over the last decade.

Much better are the occasions when Torra forgets the larger picture and allows himself to spend time noodling with some small aspect of his story: Vin’s rusted, balding Dodge Dart, filled with papers and cigar smoke; the beery atmosphere of a punk rock gig; the joys of listening to jazz and drinking espresso. The Bystander’s Scrapbook comes alive in personal, not political, moments, and one wishes there were more of them – as when Christina Donato, breaking into a rich family’s house on Christmas Eve, catches sight of herself in a dressing mirror and briefly pauses, staring at herself in the dark room. When Carol meets Gregorio, she has a million questions for him:

She wanted to know how I could be so pale for an Italian . . . Did I ever read Dickens, Dickinson or Whitman? What about past girlfriends? Should we go see DMZ and the Ramones at the Rat? How often did I think about what I am doing and why? Did I examine my experiences? Who influenced me the most in life? Did I ever wear anything but jeans and T-shirts and why did I call my rubber-sole canvas shoes Willies? Why did I choose history and what did they think of my black leather jacket in the history department?

Questions of this sort threaten to reveal a fully rounded person, but unfortunately there are not enough of them asked or answered. Those documents of the struggle would be more compelling if we knew more about the people whose stories they tell.