Monday, April 13, 2009

Advice for Italian Boys by Anne Giardini

"There is a saying I like very much," explains a mentor to a young man in Anne Giardini's novel Advice For Italian Boys. "One that can be expressed two contradictory ways, but somewhat paradoxically both of them are abundantly true." The two expressions being "God is in the details" and "The devil is in the details," both of which are also abundantly true in relation to the novel.

For indeed, it is the details, each one singularly considered, exact and perfect, that render the prose so evocative-- the description of a man's testicles, for example, or the Italy the grandmother still sees in her dreams, the intricacies of barbering, the shape of a woman's body. But it is also such a focus on details that distracts from other matters at hand, such as plot or character. Details are not enough to grow these things organically, and so this novel reads patchily in parts.

Part of this problem, however, is deliberate and due to a protagonist who has not yet achieved "self-actualization". He is probably someone who wouldn't spend much time considering "self-actualization", except that he's recently enrolled in a continuing education psychology course. And for this protagonist-- Nicole Pavone who is in his early twenties, first-generation Canadian happily ensconced at home with his Italian parents, employed as a personal trainer at the local gym-- the world around him is a place comprising details and lacking a cohesive whole. In short, he's got some growing up to do.

The solution, he believes is to take advice, and fortunately he finds it aplenty. His Nonna's old Italian maxims are always close at hand, cryptic in their meaning, but also flexible enough to have wide relevance. He turns also to this two brothers, both called Enzo, who offer their respective takes on fraternal support. And while his clients at work turn to him for fitness advice, they're also willing to offer Nicolo their own bits of wisdom. So that in the end, he is receiving so much advice, he's as much abuzz as ever with total confusion.

Advice for Italian Boys was a read that held my attention, particularly by virtue of its wide perspective-- the glimpses we get into the minds of other characters, and the opportunity to see Nicolo from the outside. I appreciated Giardini's presentation of suburban Toronto, the ethnic enclaves on the northern fringes which are usually ignored in contemporary literature. Also her portrayal of an immigrant community whose cultural identity and status in a new land is not necessarily the paramount occasion of the novel.

This is a slow story, made up of moments instead of momentum, in that I mean nothing terribly dramatic ever happens. Which is certainly not a flaw, because the moments Giardini captures are done so with great acuity. She also performs curious tricks with chronology which don't seem ultimately realized, but they suggest there's more to this simple narrative than what at first meets the reader's eye.