Fists, Pietro Grossi. (Pushkin Press) $15.95
Pietro Grossi is one of the emerging faces in Italian literature. With Fists, Pushkin Press and translator Howard Curtis give us our first glimpse of the young writer in English. Grossi is a public admirer of American writers such as Hemingway and Salinger, and their influence can be easily seen in his focused and straightforward writing style and his predilection for the young male protagonists who wander his pages searching for the male mold of identity. American readers will find Grossi’s prose refreshingly familiar stylistically, and exotic enough in terms of place and name to rile up the xenophobes among us. Grossi is one of those rare writers who is able to step away from his work and allow the story and narrative voice to wholly take over; he is successful both in first person and third person, believable as both a teenager and a man approaching thirty, as a city-slicker and a stable-hand.
Fists is composed of three short novellas. Boxing tells the story of two young men, the Dancer and the Goat, each of whom battle their own social isolation with remarkable boxing ability. The Dancer is an awkward youth—nerdy, skinny, and overlooked—who only finds confidence inside the boxing gym; the Goat is a deaf-mute whose obstinance and perfectionism have resulted in an unbeaten record. Both see themselves in the other and are compelled to test themselves against that self-reflective standard, however, neither can be victorious in the other’s defeat. As the Dancer remarks at the end of their fight, “Suddenly here we were, close to each other without our gloves on, both winners, both losers. Our weapons were gone, and we both had to come to grips with what remained of our lives.”
Horses portrays two brothers who are given horses as gifts by their father. Daniel sees his gift as an opportunity to develop a livelihood and initiates his own education by working in a stable. Natan, on the other hand, treats his horse as mere transportation to a new and exciting life in the city. In the words of the story:
It was immediately clear to everyone that the horses would take the two brothers to different places. It’s pointless to keep telling ourselves that we are all equal, we all make use of the world in our own way—to get, despite ourselves, to wherever we are meant to be. Some of us use a knife to kill, others to peel an apple. The same knife, but it makes the world different for each one of us.
Horses combines simple story-telling with emotional complexity. Grossi reveals just the right details to us at strategic moments so that the plot unfolds naturally and powerfully.
Easily the strangest story in Fists, The Monkey is also the only story in the collection that seems to be missing something vital in its guts. Nico is a young man working in the film industry. He is at home one day, waiting for a call from his agent, when he receives some disturbing news—his childhood friend, Piero, has begun to act like a monkey. The story follows Nico’s journey back to his hometown, where he must face Piero’s psychological break and the implications it has with regard to his own identity. While The Monkey is an interesting concept, mixing Kafka-esque transformations (sans physicality) with Glass family social interaction, somewhere along the way Grossi loses grip on the diverging threads of his story. The Monkey possesses flashes of brilliance, but lacks the cohesion and focus of the other two stories.
On the whole, Fists is a beautifully executed book that warrants reading. However, one noticeable flaw in its makeup is its lack of any three-dimensional female characters. Throughout the book, testosterone is king, and Grossi merely provides quick sketches of shallow femininity. There is the doting mother who forces her son to take piano lessons and is scared to let him fight, the pharmacist’s daughter who exists solely as a device to project Daniel’s sexual aspirations onto, and Nico’s agent whom he describes as “one of those overweight women with their wombs full of cement who at some point in their lives have decided that a good business deal is better than sleeping with a man.” It is understandable that women are scarce in a book that largely focuses on masculinity, however, when women do appear from time to time (as they seem to do in the lives of men) it would be satisfying to see depictions of them that are as layered and subtle as those of the male characters.
Tim Bagdanov, Fiction Columnist and Investigator of Oddities, is currently pursuing a Master’s of Teaching degree at Chapman University. A writer of fiction and poetry, he lives in Orange, California with his wife, Jessica.