Sunday, November 23, 2014

Book Review: The Fortunate Pilgrim

If you've never heard of this book, then don't be ashamed. After The Godfather became a best-seller and the movie with Marlon Brando became a cultural mega-hit, nobody remembered this book. It was Puzo's first, and it's very different from the writings that made him famous.

The story is about a family of Italian immigrants, the Corbos, living on Tenth Avenue in New York City. The novel itself begins in the year 1928. The family is controlled by Lucia Santa, a dominant mother who sailed over many years ago with her late-husband. She depends on her two eldest children, Larry and Octavia, for monetary support while their father, Lucia's second husband, is away.

Puzo's literary technique is great. He uses a cinematic approach to give us a brief glimpse of each character and the world they live in. It's wonderful for two reasons: it gives a portrait of the historical context and sets up the human drama nicely.

There's no real plot in this book. The story is about survival. Everything the Corbos do is about making it through another day, no matter what the world dishes out. And it dishes out plenty. The father, Frank, is abusive and cruel. He suffers a psychotic breakdown and is confined to an insane asylum where he later dies. On top of that, Lucia's kids are being corrupted by American values (so she thinks). Larry is a hard worker who brings the bread, but he's a carefree playboy that has multiple sexual relationships with women in the neighborhood (and it doesn't stop, even after he gets married). Octavia is critical of her mother's decisions and makes her jealous by being literate. Gino, another son, is defiant and fights authority whenever it tries to spoil his fun.

Puzo said that he considered Fortunate Pilgrim his greatest work. I haven't read The Godfather yet, but this novel was outstanding. The book instilled a new sense of wonder and respect for the thousands of people who came here and labored in a country where foreigners were despised and discriminated against. But they survived. Puzo is also very good with his descriptions of the city. New York in 1928 is a dirty, smelly, polluted, dangerous place. Railway engines cruise through the middle of town, and your only warning is some guy on a horse waving a red lantern. There's soot in the air and not enough heat in winter.

Iz nasty!

But the real stroke of writing brilliance is the focus on the day-to-day. That's the feel of this book. The novel takes place over the course of twenty years, but you don't know it until the end. Time has no place in the characters' thoughts. In fact, "1928" is the only number printed in the text. The only way you know about the Great Depression is when Gino finds a friend sobbing over his lost savings account. The only time you know it's 1941 is when Larry just happens to turn on the radio and hears about Pearl Harbor. For migrant workers, nothing else mattered except staying alive for just one more day. There was no point in looking too far ahead.

Another theme is the conflict of old traditions vs new, strange customs. None of the Italians mention Benito Mussolini, who took power in Rome in 1922. Whenever a character like Lucia Santa reminisces, her memories go back much farther to a time of robber barons, landlords, and a formal aristocracy. She has a hard time reconciling the fact that even though her kids aren't always proper, America offers them more opportunity than Italy could ever dream of.

As one character says to Larry, "America. It could make one believe in Jesus Christ."

Eventually, the family scrapes enough money together to move to Long Island. The title of the book is revealed in the last few pages. Lucia has lost two husbands and one son, and she's suffered a lot in her time. However, she's survived, and compared to others, she came out with minimal losses. She is indeed, a fortunate pilgrim.

This was a novel that I had to pay attention to each word, because Puzo doesn't use clear cut scene transitions. In fact, his narrator is omniscient, constantly zipping back and forth through people's heads and then panning way out to say, "And that's just how it was."

But that doesn't mean the novel was boring. Check it out for yourself.

Power to the pen!

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