Vince Sgambati’s first novel, Most Precious Blood – a family saga, a contemporary Italian mafia novel, and a queer coming-of-age story – opens with a babbalucci making a slow run for freedom. The setting is Lenny Lasante’s Italian grocery on 91st Avenue in Queens, NY. Lenny returns the runaway babbalucci to its container, but a second snail escapes his notice. Maybe, just maybe, it will get away.
Lenny hopes the same for Frankie, his only son. He hopes – almost prays – that Frankie will get away from everything Lenny himself was stuck with by his own father’s early death: the shop-keeping life, the circumscribed social space of the Avenue, and the shadow of fate and danger cast by Big Vinny DiCico. Vinny grew up with Lenny but quit high school when his older brother, Sal, was killed in Vietnam. Never employed but always somehow in the money when he was young, Big Vinny now runs the “club” and seems to have brought his older sons into the family business – whatever that might be.
Gennaro, Big Vinny’s youngest, still has an aura of innocence. He has a beautiful voice and a beautiful body and Frankie, two years younger, is entirely in love with him. Because his affection, his attraction, and even his love are reciprocated, Frankie is always over at the DiCico’s house, touched by and witness to the DiCicos’ pugnacity. And when Gennaro writes down the license number of a cabbie who tries to drive through Big Vinny’s Fourth of July block party, he sets the novel’s contemporary episodes of violence, vengeance, and healing into motion.
Hard yet soft, slow yet protected, the babbalucci is most clearly a fitting image for Lenny’s mixed fears and aspirations. But this novel’s most remarkable accomplishment is to pick up Frankie’s point of view with equal force and equal sympathy. Even if Lenny and Frankie feel differently about the DiCicos, they aren’t so much antagonists as companions who fear one another’s judgment until events prove to each of them how little control they have over their lives. If Lenny, like a snail, seems burdened by the weight of his house on his back, Frankie eventually seems liberated by the recognition that where he goes, home goes, too, even if not everyone he loves can come along.
He hopes – almost prays – that Frankie will get away from everything Lenny himself was stuck with by his own father’s early death: the shop-keeping life, the circumscribed social space of the Avenue, and the shadow of fate and danger cast by Big Vinny DiCico.
To read Most Precious Blood is to become closely acquainted not only with Lenny and Frankie’s neighborhood, but with their ancestry, their love, and their food. Sgambati details the Lasantes’ sandwich-making assembly line at the annual Feast of the Assumption, lingers over the foods Lenny’s customers want at Christmas (and can get nowhere else), and defines Lenny’s friendship with Doug Turner, a Black auto mechanic who works across the street from the grocery, by their sharing Doug’s homemade collard greens.
No surprise then that appetites are what draw together families of such disparate characters as the Lasantes’ and the DiCicos’. No surprise, either, that Sgambati treats those appetites so gently, even when individuals pursue them violently. If the novel’s use of simile is uneven, the symmetries it builds between different families and different generations hold the narrative steady. Frankie’s and Gennaro’s love finally becomes visible to members of both families as an extension their generations-long bond; and despite the suffering that every surviving character endures, “permission to live” is the novel’s ultimate moral consideration.
REVIEWED BY EZRA DAN FELDMAN
Ezra is the author Habitat of Stones, which won the Patricia Bibby First Book Award. He has published in RHINO, Crazyhorse, Lambda Literary, DIAGRAM, and other venues. He teaches American Literature and Science and Technology Studies at Williams College. http://ezradanfeldman.com