Bushwick Trilogy

Lights Out in Paradise - Merging autobiography and fiction to draw readers in and hold them long after the final page, this novel is also a compelling sociological study of a Brooklyn neighborhood slipping into a slow demise. Young Cosmo having survived a harrowing sail from Sicily to New York becomes friends with Rocco, an American born into a mafia family. Moving through the 1950s and then 1960s, the boys grow into manhood, two very different personae making a life in Bushwick, a Brooklyn working-class neighborhood edging towards full urban decay. The novel explores the hearts of its characters, juxtaposing their lives and struggles against local social mores, Vietnam, and an Italian community facing the influx of African Americans and Puerto Ricans. This is a novel about change—fighting it and adjusting to it—and how two boys become young men desperate to find their place in an increasingly dangerous and alien world. 

Rocco Vartucci sat on the ledge of his grandmother’s third-floor kitchen window gazing into the tenement backyards that framed his lower Bushwick block.... 

“Nonna!” Rocco screamed. “There are men on the fire escape!”

Nonna Vartucci grabbed the carving knife and pulled Rocco away. She waved the foot-long blade menacingly at two men in serviceable woolen suits, the kind that filled the $25-racks at Robert Hall. They ignored the old woman. Acting on information from the usually dependable home office that Giuliano “Jewels” Vartucci lived in the left, third floor apartment of 54 Knickerbocker Avenue, they peered through the window expecting to find him. After gingerly descending the fire escape undeterred by the rusty bolts and metal that twanged like a Jew’s harp under their weight, they slipped down to the third floor and spooked Rocco as he gazed at the sky.

“Whatta you want?” Nonna Vartucci shouted in a thick Italian accent that caught the men’s attention. 

Flashing badges, one of them answered casually, “We’re FBI agents, ma’am. Open the window.” The agents again scanned the apartment over the old woman’s head.

“No!” she protested. “How do I a-know-a who-a you are?”  She then whispered to her grandson, “Go downa stairs. Tella Giuliano to run. The polizzia isa here.”

Rocco refused to budge. The instinct to protect his grandmother kicked in. Cold anger swept over him; his right shoulder twitched inexplicably; the thought of pushing the two over the railing into the yard seemed the thing to do. Nonna Vartucci nudged him repeatedly until he bolted from the kitchen bounding the stairs two and three steps at a time to his uncle’s apartment one floor below. A friendly game of briscola was underway in Uncle Giuliano’s kitchen. The game’s playful banter set the mood for the Christmas Eve festivities of wine, food, and storytelling to take place in his grandmother’s apartment after sunset. For this Neapolitan family, the main event of the celebration wasn’t the traditional seven-fish dinner, but the lobsters that had been delivered that afternoon from the Fulton Fish Market. Every Christmas Eve since the end of World War II a case was delivered to Nonna Vartucci’s without explanation. 

Yael's Scroll - A young Marine with PTSD sorts out sexuality, love and the violent intersection of neighborhood turf wars and international politics. 

She motioned Cielo to sit, reclining ever so slightly, an odalisque reposing on the Victorian sofa more fittingly upholstered for a harlot’s parlor in red, blue, and green arabesques than an ambassador’s state room. Across from her in the matching armchair, Ali sat partly camouflaged by the fabric swirls and the mashrabiya-patterned wood in the matching armchair. Barely in earshot as the conversation on the couch commenced. The cavernous room’s formal interior had discrete areas where guests might gather in twos and threes to hatch grand international plots or solicit small personal favors without being overheard. From his chair, Ali had to reach for the pipe shank closest to him and strain to hear Nicolette’s voice officiating from the sofa’s remote heights. The bits he heard were augmented by reading facial expressions and movement. No meaning was lost. He had been trained to see beyond language, beyond the untrustworthy spoken word. “Speakers,” Nicolette had taught him, “are deceptive, and those with gilded capacities are to be distrusted most. The English and French are master dissemblers, each in their own accent, but they’re no match for the shiftless Americans, the most dangerous because they are invariably reckless and blunt; moreover, they can bungle almost anything—sadly, even une nuit d’amour. And don’t be fooled by well-bred exemplars either. Apes can be taught to use a knife and fork properly. Watch and observe the outward signs. Truth lies in a raised eyebrow, a restless foot, or a relaxed leg casually crossed over a knee when it ought not to be! Background is determinative. Intentions and desires, braided into us at birth, cannot be unwound, no matter the yarns we invent about ourselves to deceive ourselves and others. Show me a man standing at a bus stop and I will tell you where he is heading, and, more importantly, where he has been.” 

On the fireplace’s red oak mantel, hand carved acorns and American bald eagles in spread-wing profile gave testament to the European artisans that brought them to life, and on the imposing sill near Ali and throughout the room black and white photographs documented a career threading through 20th Century history. The woman captured in these photos more delicate than frail seemed miscast on a stage filled entirely with men, all, in contrast to her reed-like stature, with striking power poses. “Is this man Ngo Dinh Diem, Nicolette, the Vietnamese president whom the CIA helped topple?” Cielo asked.

“If you mean assassinate, my dear, then it is he.

My Father, My Son - Through alternating internal narratives, the tugs and resistance of an immigrant father and his son's relationship in the new world prove to be disastrously incompatible.

One Monday as I left town and headed back to Campo di Pedri, I came across Giacomo the shepherd at the edge of his property just feet from the road. He had matured. His streaked gray hair and leathery skin desiccated by the sun offset his soft ageless eyes, as soft as I remembered them. He seemed at peace with the world and wedded to his wandering ways. The following day he stood at the north wall of Campo di Pedri as he used to in his younger days. The dog at his side was as obedient as the animal I once knew. It did not stir or bark until I approached. He had two pecorino cheeses on a string. “Giacomo,” I said, “I’ve nothing to offer you in return.”

“No, no, Signore Baldassare,” he says. Lifting the cheeses a bit higher, he gestures in the generous way of a poor man.  “These are gifts. Welcome home.” 

We chat. He’s pleased to hear my brother-in-law Giovanni will soon own Campo di Pedri. Then he asks when I expect to return to America. “Heaven knows, Giacomo,” I say. “It’s in God’s hands now.” The shepherd nods and crosses the air as though he is a priest offering a last benediction. “Spirito Santo. Ciao Signore Baldassare. Ci vedremo in un altro mondo,” he says, then gestures to me or to God, it’s unclear which, before returning to his wanderings. The dog falls in at his side. I watch long enough to see the animal’s ears straighten as it scents the flock grazing nearby.