Finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize
"These tales of an Italian-American neighborhood on Chicago's North Side during
the 1950s and '60s go further than the usual picturesque ethnic memoir, with
Ardizzone taking them that extra step through added complexity and carefully chosen
language. All these stories distinguish themselves through empathetic portrayals of
unexceptional people described in exceptional language." -- Publishers Weekly
"Tony Ardizzone's neighborhood is the North Side of Chicago and, more
specifically, the Italian Catholic neighborhoods that flourished there. In a dozen
highly polished tales, Ardizzone describes a world that revolves around the church,
the family, and work, in that order. Ardizzone's characters are no strangers to
tragedy, physical violence, or prejudice, but he writes about them from an attitude
of affection, not anger or regret. These stories will have an appeal far beyond the
'friendly confines'." -- Booklist
"These stories by Tony Ardizzone are distinguished by a quality that I have long
admired in his writing: the solid way his fiction is grounded in the American
experience. Ardizzone is a writer who writes out of love rather than anger or
contempt, and his emotional palette is fittingly broad. Yet his great affection for
his subjects never blinds him to the tough realities and inequalities of life on
American streets; rather, it leads him to gaze more intently and to see deeper." --
Stuart Dybek, author of The Coast of Chicago
"A must read for everyone, from the Italian American to the non-ethnic, from the
casual reader to the literary critic. Taking It Home only confirms what we
have seen thus far, that Tony Ardizzone belongs, for sure, to the upper echelon of
contemporary United States writers." -- Anthony Julian Tamburri, author of To
Hyphenate Or Not to Hyphenate: The Italian/American Writer
"Wonderful! The collection contains an unusual mix of styles, from urban realism
to comparatively experimental yto sinister. It's a fine collection of Chicago
stories, but its real strength lies in its unnerving and thrilling use of point of
view." -- Paul Hoover, author of Illinois
University of Illinois Press press release and jacket copy
Jacket illustration: "Santa Rosalie Feast," by Bob Cimbalo
TAKING IT HOME: STORIES FROM THE NEIGHBORHOOD
University of Illinois Press/Sunsinger Books * March 1996 * ISBN 0-252-06483-6
Publishers Weekly review of Taking It Home: Stories from the Neighborhood,
by Tony Ardizzone.
Copyright © 1996 by Publishers Weekly, February 5, 1996.
These tales of an Italian-American neighborhood on Chicago's North Side during
the 1950s and '60s go further than the usual picturesque ethnic memoir, with
Ardizzone (Larabi's Ox) taking them that extra step through added complexity
and carefully chosen language. The narrator of "Baseball Fever" recalls how, as a
young boy, he confused Catholicism and baseball into one entity, leading to a unique
perspective on religion: God "had several legions of good angels (my first lesson in
the concept of a deep bench) waiting with drawn swords behind him." Meanwhile, the
somewhat slatternly Bobbi plans to seduce her chaste Catholic boyfriend in order to
bond with him forever, but instead she angers him in "The Daughter and the
Tradesman." In "The Language of the Dead," a boy insists to a "fat Christian
brother" that he was not the one who instigated a fight during a school basketball
game that resulted in over $300 in damage. And "Ladies' Choice" describes the
rituals of attending Sunday night dances for kids where "You don't have to be a
Catholic to get in, but Catholics pay fifty cents less." All of these stories
distinguish themselves through empathetic portrayals of unexceptional people
described in exceptional language.
Voices in Italian Americana review of Taking It Home: Stories from the
Neighborhood, by Tony Ardizzone.
Copyright © 1997 by Voices in Italian Americana, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall 1997. Reviewed
by Edvige Giunta.
Tony Ardizzone's most recent collection of short stories offers a glance into the
ethnic, primarily working-class, world of Chicago, a world that the author suffuses
with poetry and into which he injects his awareness of the tragedy that can invade
the peaceful routine of daily living. Many of the twelve stories in the collection
focus primarily on one character, whose slanted perspective functions as the
reader's gate into a slice of life that would otherwise go unnoticed. If the title
of the collection conveys the idea of a homecoming, of a reunion between the author
and the neighborhood of his childhood and youth, then the stories themselves capture
a world in which the narrators and protagonists feel at home in, but are estranged
from. Ardizzone uncovers the unfamiliar in the familiar: the strange perversions of
everyday life that shatter his characters' trust that tomorrow will be like
yesterday insidiously make their way into these stories. The stories themselves
surprise the reader with unexpected twists and closures that refuse to provide
either resolution or reconciliation.
These characters skillfully balance the precarious equilibrium of living,
recalling the struggles of Sherwood Anderson's grotesques. Ardizzone portrays
children, clumsy adolescents, adult men and women, and old people with grace and
understanding: no one is exempt from life's trials and tribulations, which can
strike even a group of children playing baseball -- a game that appears frequently
in these stories. Baseball serves as a frame that encloses the mayhem of daily
living -- and dying. For the protagonist of "Baseball Fever," the opening story of
the collection, baseball is not merely a game of childhood: it is the locus of
unexpected tragedy; it is the word that brings back the death of a playmate he
accidentally caused during a game improvised in the streets of his neighborhood. The
images of the child killed by a ball that struck him in the throat, and of the other
child, who suddenly finds himself a murderer, weigh heavily on the mind of the
reader. The abrupt shift from humor to tragedy takes the reader by surprise and sets
the tone for many of the later stories. Yet the humor never quite disappears, even
when death looms. Ardizzone's narrative is imbued with a dark humor that is one of
the distinctive and most captivating traits of his style.
Baseball and religion are intimately connected, especially in "Baseball Fever"
and "Holy Cards," and the rules of both "games" provide the protagonists of the two
stories both with interpretive frameworks through which to contemplate overwhelming
events and with a way to view the sacred as profane and the profane as sacred. The
rules and dogmas of Catholicism and their superstitious manifestations surface
frequently in these stories, in ways that suggest that Ardizzone's relationship to
Catholicism is not simple. His critique refuses to reject the cultural element of
Catholicism obviously pervasive in his upbringing and in his prose. "The Language of
the Dead" offers an unflattering portrayal of Catholic schools and an oblique but
eloquent condemnation of physical punishment, a disciplinary method freely used in
the schools. The game played with crucifixes by the young protagonist of "Baseball
Fever" enables the boy to engage in a conversation with Jesus. Lying still, he sees
Jesus's "hollow cheeks" reflecting a flame; Jesus's head seems to shake in
disagreement, as if he were rejecting the boy's requests for absolution.
Ardizzone's stories seem influenced by Joyce's subversive and irreverent uses of
Catholicism and his depictions of the violation of childhood innocence in
Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. "The Eyes of
Children," for example, recalls Joyce's "Araby" as it aptly describes the
disillusionment of a young boy who discovers that life promises no miracles. "My
Mother's Stories" begins with the troubling statement: "They were going to throw her
away when she was a baby." There is little safety for children in the world depicted
by Ardizzone, and adolescence proves no less trying, as rendered in "The Daughter
and the Tradesman," in which playful courtship becomes rape; or in "Ladies' Choice,"
in which being picked by the dream girl has quite different connotations than one
might expect; only at the end of the story does the reader find out the true
significance of the title.
Ardizzone is at his best in his depictions of children, adolescents, and old
people. His sensitive and often lyrical portrayal of old age is evident in "Nonna,"
one of the most memorable stories of Taking It Home. The haunting presence of
an old woman wandering through the streets of her neighborhood, the Little Italy of
the West Side, where, feeling a pariah, she is chased by her memories, leaves its
imprint on the reader's own memory, as do characters such as Vinnie, the young boy
in "The Language of the Dead," or the nameless protagonist of "The Man in the
Movie." The old woman's fragmented memories constitute the core of the narrative
which, although in the third person, filters the thinking of this character, which
is as disjointed as her roaming through the dilapidated neighborhood. By entitling
this story "Nonna," Ardizzone, like other Italian/American writers, pays on
endearing tribute to the old Italians -- comparable to Tina De Rosa's elegiac
evocation of the same neighborhood -- that never turns into futile nostalgia.
Ardizzone is one of a handful of writers who refuses to subscribe to formulaic or
self-serving depictions of Italian Americans. What is striking about these stories
is their portrayal of everyday life, of characters who might resemble your next door
neighbors: one can almost see their silhouettes framed by a door against the
darkness of their houses, catching a train, driving their parents' cars at night,
encountering the reader half-way between fiction and reality, while the author makes
that encounter possible through his compassionate vision of the quotidian.
Chicago Sun-Times review of Taking It Home: Stories from the Neighborhood,
by Tony Ardizzone.
"Tony Ardizzone Gets the Details Right," copyright © 1996 by Chicago Sun-Times, June
16, 1996. Reviewed by Robert A. Bassi.
Writers of short stories are like glass blowers, practitioners of a dying art
that may be hazardous to their health. Financial health, at least. Why do they do
it? Because nothing short of poetry can match the short story for its ability to
crystallize a memory, an emotion, a moment.
So it is with Tony Ardizzone, a sharp observer of "the old neighborhoods" that
gave us context even as they balkanized the city. His stories of the 1950s and 1960s
are a time machine that transports the reader back to a simpler if not better
When Catholics of this era meet, the first question was always, "What parish are
you from?" In school their children competed in collecting coins "to buy and name
Even the harsh realities of life -- death, betrayal, abandonment -- were muffled
in an innocence soon to be mutilated by assassination, riots, and serial killers
from Richard Speck to the Vietnam War.
The Chicago of the pre-JFK era was a city without gray values, at least to the
dominant forces attempting to mold us in their images -- parents, priests, but
especially the nuns.
"Imagine the toughest Marlboro cowboy driving the naïve calf from its mothers
shadow and then roping it, tying off its hooves, drawing out from the Pentecostal
flames of the campfire the red-hot brands of Guilt and Fear, and then burning the
calf's hide while it writhes and squeals like one of the Three Little Piggies being
devoured by the Big Bad Wolf and you have a fairly accurate picture of my life's
early religious education."
In describing the Fall of the Angels, the young hero of "Baseball Fever" infuses
church teaching with sports: "It seems that millions of years before Paradise, some
of God's finest archangels and seraphim were disobedient, too. The good Lord was on
them in a millisecond. Also, he had several legions of good archangels (my first
lesson in the concept of a deep bench)."
In "Nonna," an old woman wanders the neighborhood, as lost in memories as she is
in her meandering. In "Ritual," fishing becomes a metaphor of life for a father and
his grown son. "Ladies' Choice" lays out the prejudices, posturing and protocols of
a teen dance -- as complex and danger-laden as a Bosnian truce.
But Ardizzone is at his best with his young characters and the Catholic teaching
that circumscribes their lives: "He was careful not to swallow any toothpaste as he
brushed his teeth. He didn't want to break his Communion fast."
Holy cards were the Catholic equivalent of baseball cards. In fact, Dominic, the
young hero of "Holy Cards," mixes his collection with his baseball cards. "On
several, Dominic had drawn halos or put crosses on their bats. 'The Cubs are the
martyrs,'" he tells his mother.
The nuns handed out holy cards "as a reward for doing some difficult thing
perfectly, like cleaning the erasers and not getting chalk dust on everything. Each
holy card depicted a special moment in a holy person's life, sort of like snapshots
in God's family album."
At the heart of each story is the scary recognition that the world isn't as
simplistic as the good Sisters taught us. But because Ardizzone gets the details
right -- and tells his stories with unblinking honesty warmed by affection -- he has
created a family photo album in which many Chicagoans will find a page to call home.
Italian Americana review of Taking It Home: Stories from the Neighborhood,
by Tony Ardizzone.
Copyright © 1997 by Italian Americana, Vol. 15, No. 1. Reviewed by Kenny
The short story is often about entrapment, perhaps because the form leaves little
room for second chances. As in a poem, a central metaphor captures -- and cages --
the protagonist. This restriction is one source of the story's power. Stripped of
novelistic complexities, the characters of short fiction readily turn to myth. The
metaphor can resonate, enduring in echo, establishing unexpected harmonies, or
jangling against our thoughtless assumptions.
Tony Ardizzone's latest collection, Taking It Home, exemplifies this
aspect of the genre. Its protagonists share the fate of frustration. For all their
desire to be unique, they find themselves doomed to ordinariness. The writer's
special insight is into the the ways his characters collaborate in their
frustration. Whether they are children attempting to parse the malarkey offered as
religious instruction, or lonely young people seeking the means to lure dream
lovers, or a thief advising himself on criminal procedure, Ardizzone's protagonists
try to obey the rules. But the rules are shifty and inscrutable, and the characters'
confused efforts have no effect but to flatten them into types, living out empty or
dangerous roles. A self-described "greaser" is arbitrarily accused of gang violence
by a girl from a wealthy neighborhood; a Lithuanian immigrant becomes the "dark
deranged foreigner" of a newspaper story and the idealized model for his daughter's
self-destruction. Sometimes the narrator allows characters no name at all, or calls
them "the father" and "the son," or, as in one story's title, "The Daughter and the
Tradesman." We can read this typification as mythic stature, the characters
embodying truths about themselves. But that stature provides no consolation to the
disappointed characters. They are believers in the larger American myth: that our
fates derive solely from the content of our character, and that we can therefore be
fairly judged by our visible achievements.
The characters' ethnicity highlights the cruelty of such judgment. Almost all are
identified as Italian American, and that identity limits their possibilities, not as
genetic trait or learned behavior pattern, but as focus for stereotyping. "Greasers"
don't dance with "doopers"; one marries one's own kind; Catholic kids go to their
own schools (where they learn they are deserving of retributive beatings even when
innocent). The stories give the lie to each of these stereotypes. Yet the
characters' society -- and more tragically, the characters themselves -- continue to
believe in them. The title character of "Nonna" wins her generic, familial name by
her age and ethnicity alone; but the naming only reminds her of the childlessness
she has been taught to believe shameful.
The surprises in these stories arise less from plot than from the unfolding of
their metaphors. A further appeal lies in the ambitious range of the characters and
the details of social observation. Focused on a single setting, like
Dubliners or Winesburg, Ohio, the book draws a map of Chicago, and
portrays the dress, the architecture, the manners of that city's groups. "Baseball
Fever," "Idling," and especially "The Language of the Dead" were my own favorites,
stories whose cry against injustice still rings in my ears.
The Georgia Review review of Taking It Home: Stories from the Neighborhood,
by Tony Ardizzone.
"Keeping Company," copyright © 1996 by The Georgia Review, Vol. 50, No. 3, Fall
1996. Reviewed by Lionel Basney.
It's an old story with us, that we no longer live in intact communities, that
even within the marshaled closeness of the suburbs we live to ourselves and have no
common language but invented ones -- ones that appeal to our private interests and
wishes. Political moralists lament this fact about us and get no further. Academic
critics like to say that it is simply the condition of reading, every interpretation
differing from other every other.
Such easy acquiescence in alienation, however, is not practical politics for a
writer. Stories invoke communities even when community is not a theme, and reading a
story -- or, more exactly, understanding one, catching on -- puts us on common
ground with others who have read and caught on: the common ground of the story. Even
if no one reads a story, its making sense implies the community of readers the
writer had in mind as he worked. He has consulted us, relying on our competence to
read and perhaps also on our specialized knowledge of a region, a set of customs, a
dialect, a time. Writers address the community of those who know how to listen.
But the process is more complicated than that. The story may include or concern a
community, and this in turn may reflect a place or group whose real-world name we
know. We may enter the story with feelings about this latter community, which the
writer may endorse or undercut. What he does will reveal his own commitments. He may
feel anger toward the community on the other side of the story from us -- or piety,
regret, or just curiosity.
These are questions not of writing technique but of the attitudes that inform
technique and its reception. With more space, we could produce a typology of such
attitudes. At one extreme would be a writer like Wendell Berry, who uses all the
points of view, but whose various voices all grow out of the moral and literal
vocabulary of his remembered, imagined Kentucky town, Port William, and whose
stories consequently endorse its way of life. This is the fundamental aesthetic form
of Berry's loyalty to the people he belongs to and has chosen to live among. But
there are probably more writers today at the other extreme: their voices show us by
disorienting leaps and appeals (or simply by extraordinary unlifelike elegance) that
no real community lies behind the characters, and that the community of readers is
fabricated and fictive as well.
So loyalty and skepticism ordain technical choices, and such choices offer a
moral stance. A story, Wayne Booth says, is a form of keeping company. What the
story makes of us is determined in part by what it makes of the people it renders.
In Taking It Home, Tony Ardizzone has a real place in mind, Chicago, and
he introduces it with an epigraph from Nelson Algren addressing the city in his most
romantic tough-guy manner: "I . . . will remember / That once, long ago, you were
the doll of the world." This both dates and characterizes Ardizzone's Italian
"neighborhood": part of the coherence we feel in its life comes from history, but
part from its familiarity as a source of fiction. We've read about these things
before and watched them on film: the parochial school and its flattened catechetical
religion, alley baseball, sock hops, the Cubs, the violence buoying up off the block
against the restraints of police and church. And the collection's mood is familiar:
so distinct and intense a communal life seems to require being sealed off and
displayed at a little distance, like Joyce's Dublin.
Thus, Ardizzone's challenge
is to let us see and hear this neighborhood freshly, from nearby and inside. He
works especially hard to let us hear; the collection is an album of voices. The
first we hear, in "Baseball Fever," is standup, slambang, a mix of child's
naïveté and adult's knowingness:
"So God punished not only dumb Eve and Adam but everyone else who came from their
apple seeds. Which meaning everybody, from the Chinese with their chopsticks
to the Eskimos in their igloos to the Australians with their crazy boomerangs. The
sin boomeranged throughout the ages. Which meant we were all brothers and sisters
(momentary confusion and panic: then who will I be able to marry when I grow up?),
damned to the neverending broiler, furnace, blazing hibachi of Hell."
This voice flashes cultural signals at us -- who, where, when. (How long since
you've thought of Eskimos and igloos?) The voice is virtuosic, therefore limited;
complicated in its footwork, it is simple in its implicit judgment of this faith,
this education. The collection as a whole does not, I think, depart from this
judgment, but Ardizzone has more complex instruments to play and more complicated
attitudes sometimes emerge. One such instrument is monologue, or virtual monologue,
a story conducted in the thoughts (though not always the first-person voice) of a
single mind. In "Nonna," the mind is that of an elderly Italian woman:
". . . the memory spills across her mind with the sound of the girls'
easy laughter, and she moves back on the pink sofa and does not put up her hands as
Vincenzo strokes her cheek and then touches her, gently, on the front of her green
dress. Then she turned to the boy and quickly kissed him. The light from the oil
lamp flickered. The snoring stopped. She looked at Vincenzo and blushed with the
shame of her mortal sin, and now if Vincenzo does not say they will marry she knows
she will have to take her own life, and that indeed in God's eyes through her sin
she has already died."
Nonna's limitations are evident, but her comprehensions and incomprehensions
have in fact eventuated in a marriage, a life. The old cultural ways, arrayed across
Ardizzone's lattice of tenses, are what Nonna still uses to interpret the
neighborhood. In applying her categories she often guesses wrong, but she has, in
the end, the strength to adapt to change.
Two stories early in the book struck me as autobiographical, illustrating how
close at least some of this material probably is to the life behind it. In "My
Mother's Stories," fiction almost effaces itself: the mother's anecdotes are
recalled by a writer/son named Tony. Her name is Mary (who, in a Roman Catholic
context, would invent this?), and her tales are impelled by small, quotidian
neighborhood events -- a near accident, a tough at the back fence -- which she
launders by telling them, interpreting and coping. The other story of the pair,
"Ritual," is a father-and-son piece. It feels autobiographical not because it clues
us in with names but because the narrator is so close to the characters that no
names are needed. The story is like an elaborated diary entry, filled out and
formalized. The ritual is a fishing trip, the two-week flight to Wisconsin which is
part of Chicago life, the reward of faithful labor, the summer sabbath; and the
story's religious note is sustained by the patterning of the action, as if the scene
-- anonymous, archetypal, more Hemingway than Norman Maclean -- were suspended in
Many of the stories are almost snapshots, with the brevity sometimes perfectly
suited. "Ritual" contains one action, one fish to be caught. And "World Without End"
is a hilarious brief concerto for one voice and accompaniment wherein Lena, the
mother, deconstructs her son's life, work, clothes, food, and sexual experience --
all in revenge for his having abandoned Chicago and her. Yet despite Lena's eloquence,
her insistence on her own acuity, she wants nothing more than appearances, and her
son, Petie, hapless as he is, knows how to protect himself with the piety of right
Sometimes, however, a story's brevity is troubling. In "The Language of the
Dead," fifteen-year-old Vinnie is grilled by Brother Stan, his school's basketball
coach, about an after-game fracas. Bullied, flashing back to his father's belt
buckle, Vinnie confesses, but when he is finished the assistant principal begins to
slap him, mechanically and thoughtlessly, and Vinnie can do nothing but retreat into
pain. It is a beat-and-be-beaten world, and Vinnie too simply a victim. At moments
like this the neighborhood and its impulses seem too decided upon, too fixed, and I
wish that Ardizzone would tell us more. How did this community nurture, adjust,
persist, if its authority was all violence and its faith all "dumb Eve and Adam" and
the Sister of Charity's rote theological sadism? We approach a clearer understanding
in "Nonna," but she is virtually senile, and her past and present run together.
With "Holy Cards," I think, we come closer still. It treats with tact and great
gentleness many of the things -- catechism, baseball -- that get the slambang
treatment in "Baseball Fever." In "Holy Cards," however, the child and his widowed
mother adjust and survive, remember and interpret together: we begin to understand
the resilience that made this world possible.
Prairie Schooner review of Taking It Home: Stories from the Neighborhood,
by Tony Ardizzone.
Review of Gladys Swan's "A Visit to Strangers" and Tony Ardizzone's "Taking It
Home," copyright © 1999 by Prairie Schooner, Vol. 73, No. 1, Spring 1999. Reviewed
by Sharon Oard Warner.
No matter how you look at them, short stories are always about entrances and
exits. Think of it this way: The reader is minding her own business when all of a
sudden some author grabs her, pulls her through the front door of a strange house,
makes hasty introductions and whisks her through several rooms where mysterious
happenings are already in progress; then, before she's good and comfortable, the
author shows her the back door. A whirlwind visit that is ultimately satisfying:
that's a short story, and that's when the author is polite. Sometimes, the reader
gets pushed out a window or shoved through the doggie door. Occasionally, yes, the
reader gets bored and gives the author the slip, but the best authors keep the side
doors locked and don't let the reader leave until it's over, and even then she
leaves reluctantly, a bit mystified but immeasurably enriched.
Such is the experience of reading a good story, and for the purposes of advancing
the metaphor, the two books under review are aptly named. Gladys Swan's new
collection is called A Visit to Strangers and Tony Ardizzone's, Taking It
Home: Stories from the Neighborhood. Both of these writers know what they're up
to; both are veteran storytellers who have published novels and previous
collections. They've mastered the craft and are quite comfortable with the task of
ushering the reader through the front door of the story. No fuss, no muss. For
example, Gladys Swan begins her story, "The Afternoon of the Pterodactyl" this way:
"Home from school. He let himself in with his keys and slammed the door behind
him, then stood listening as the silence put itself together around him. He liked to
announce his presence to the house just in case it had been hatching something to
surprise him with while he was away."
In the space of three sentences, the reader has been let inside and introduced to
a little boy with a hankering for mystery. Surely, the author won't disappoint by
promising something that won't come to pass. Likely, the house has hatched up
something to surprise this boy, and the story's beginning invites speculation as to
what that might be. The reader yearns for surprise just as the boy does. One step
inside, then another, and pretty soon Gladys Swan has us just where she wants us,
deep into the story.
Tony Ardizzone is every bit as practiced and relaxed when it comes to openings.
Here's the first paragraph of "The Man in the Movie":
"The siren whines. Whines. And whines, even louder. It is west of me, I think,
on Ashland Avenue -- two, three hundred yards away. I am thinking so clearly it
amazes me. I should be in a sweat. I should slow my pace. Unwind, and try to walk
more naturally. I don't want to attract any attention or make even the slightest
mistake. I should stop looking around. There are so many sirens in the city, the
chances are this one isn't for me. It might be only an ambulance, I think. That's
right. I must think that the siren is only an ambulance."
In this case, the entrance is more abrupt, dropping the reader directly into the
mind of a fugitive. Danger is in the air, or the promise of danger. Somebody else's
danger? All the better. To paraphrase Janet Burroway, reading fiction offers us the
opportunity to have an experience we don't have to pay for. It's safe to go along
for the ride. Just what has the narrator done, the reader wonders, and will he "make
the slightest mistake"?
As might be expected, neither Swan nor Ardizzone trouble too much over exits,
either. By this point in their careers, both are confident of their ability to find
a conclusion -- one quick shove and the reader is out the door. In both of these
collections, the world of the story seems to dissipate or fall away, and suddenly
the reader is right back in the living room again, sometimes a little puzzled and
disappointed. The boot out can feel too quick, sometimes, even premature, but that
tendency, too, is a mark of maturity. Better to get out too soon than to overstay
one's welcome. Surely the reader is more likely to forgive the former than the
Given their dexterity with entrances and exits, it makes sense that these authors
would be paying more attention to other matters, and such is the case. Both are most
interested in characterization, point of view, and setting. Whose house is it and
where? These are central concerns in both books.
The title story of A Visit to Strangers is a case in point. It's a lovely
and affecting tale that begins in the omniscient, using the plural "they," to refer
to husband and wife, but soon slipping into the groove of the wife's point of view.
Marion and Jeff are summering in a one-hundred-year-old cabin, enjoying the scenery
and the quiet, when an old grad-school friend drops by, trailing his teenage
daughter. The old friend hasn't changed a bit; he's both lovable and thoroughly
despicable, and no one is much surprised when he takes off, leaving his daughter to
celebrate her eighteenth birthday with strangers. Such an awkward situation, but
these three weather it with good grace. If the story seems to lack a climax, and it
does, this is partly the result of the characters themselves. They simply refuse to
be perturbed. Near the end of the story, Marion reflects that perhaps her life is
only an "extended dream, a history that had simply gone through her head in a dance
of movement, and a geography, this lake and shore, that her imagination had reached
out to invest with various motives and interpretations."
In other stories, Swan experiments with point of view in order to train the
reader's eye on the nuances of character. The story "Veronica" begins by observing
the title character from the perspective of her cousin, Janet, a woman who has
little or no capacity for real empathy. Later, the story is handed over to Veronica
herself, a genuinely good soul, though without any of the social graces or physical
attractiveness that might gain her entry into Janet's happy but superficial world.
Not much happens in this story, either; not much changes. What's important is the
delineation of character, the fact of Veronica's bravery in the face of overwhelming
loneliness. It's enough to have met her, to have gained entry into her heart and
Many of the pieces in A Visit to Strangers detail loss in the lives of
women. In "The Grotto," a woman vacationing in Europe receives a telegram announcing
the death of her sister, and in "Trash" a mother stands on the brink of losing
custody of her son, a boy she loves but can't reach, a boy who is truly a lost soul.
In other stories, men and women struggle to regain lost memories, lost causes, lost
youth, and lost love. Often, music and art figure largely in these characters'
lives, and though they use both as a means of communication, as a way to render life
meaningful, most often these devices fail them. Any disappointment the reader feels
in this collection comes from the lack of resolution in most of these stories.
Empathy and emotional investment are undercut by the reader's sense of futility. No
matter how much we care for these characters, all will come to naught.
Like Gladys Swan, Tony Ardizzone does not blink in the face of misery. Many of
the tales in Taking It Home concern characters whose lives have been marred,
even ruined, by the strictures of Catholicism and the brutish disregard of parents
and teachers. Set in the North Side of Chicago in the 1950s and '60s, these stories
vividly evoke a time gone by and are nostalgic in the best sense of the word.
Several are set in Catholic schools and feature nuns and administrators who are
experts in terror and torture. In "Baseball Fever," the narrator describes the
Sisters of Christian Charity, who undertook his education and religious instruction
at the tender age of six: "Imagine the toughest Marlboro cowboy driving the naive
calf from its mother's shadow and then roping it, tying off its hooves, drawing out
from the Pentecostal flames of the campfire the red-hot brands of Guilt and Fear,
and then burning the calf's hide while it writhes and squeals like one of the Three
Little Piggies being devoured by the Big Bad Wolf and you have a fairly accurate
picture of my life's earliest religious education." At its worst, Catholic
instruction is devastating; at its best, confusing. Dominic, the main character in
"Holy Cards," attempts to make sense of the Holy Trinity by drawing analogies to
baseball. His efforts are amusing to his mother but not to the nun who grades his
Other stories in Taking It Home are experiments in voice and point of
view. "My Mother's Stories" is narrated by the author, using his own name, his own
voice, and, seemingly, his own mother. Without artifice or the usual fictional
devices, the character / author Tony tells his mother's stories, spilling them out
across the page against the backdrop of her imminent death, bringing back her life
and vitality through words. It's a lovely piece, both a tribute and a testimonial,
and it does much to balance the portrayal of family in other stories, where parents
are unfeeling and even brutal. "Ritual," too, is noteworthy for its poignant
depiction of the parent / child relationship, this time that of a father and adult
son on a fishing trip in Wisconsin. Though the story is marred by excursions into
the points of view of animals -- heron, duck, and fish -- it does a wonderful job of
showing the reader how the balance of a relationship can tip from father to son,
thereby creating "moments that bore unexpected intimacy as well as sadness."
The authors of both collections are concerned about the vulnerable and the
troubled -- young children at the mercy of their parents, old people at the mercy of
their children. In less capable hands, these pieces might turn maudlin and sordid,
but Swan and Ardizzone know well how to enter gracefully and leave without taking
advantage. These are strangers worth visiting, and without exception, they give the
reader something worthwhile to take home.