February 18, 2009

Book review: "A Tomb on the Periphery," by John Domini

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A Tomb on the Periphery
By John Domini
Gival Press / ISBN: 978-1-928589-40-2


(UPDATE, FEBRUARY 2009: For those coming across this in the future, since this review I have also conducted a two part interview with Domini for the CCLaP Podcast.)

As regular readers know, I don't believe in such a thing as "mainstream literary fiction" (or "general literature," or "academic fiction," or whatever you want to call it), versus so-called "genre" work; I believe the former to be a type of genre as well, simply one more concentrated on character than on plot, and that such academic fiction contains just as many easy tropes its fans are on the lookout for (the miserable suburbanite, the philandering professor) as there are references within sci-fi novels to lasers and spaceships. And so just like any other genre out there, there are some academic writers who are little more than hacks, and others who appeal specifically to the highest end of the spectrum; and then there are the privileged few who manage to find that super-fine balance between dense literary complexity and mainstream appeal, all the Michael Chabons and John Irvings and Tom Wolfes of the world who are able to turn in award-winning tomes that still appeal to the beach-and-airport crowd. And these just happen to be my favorite type of writers of all, so am of course always thrilled when coming across one of them.

A Tomb on the Periphery, by John Domini

And you can now officially add to that list author John Domini, who is having quite the hot streak indeed in his literary career these days; just a year after his astonishing surprise Pulitzer nominee Earthquake ID (which I reviewed here just a few weeks ago, by the way), comes now the second book of his so-called "Naples Trilogy," the smart and fast-paced crime noir A Tomb on the Periphery, itself nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award last year when it first came out. It reminded me a lot of an author like Michael Chabon, in fact, simply from the way Domini is able to move so effortlessly from the twee academe stereotypes of the trilogy's first book (a densely metaphorical magical-realism tale in love with language) to the much more genre-oriented conventions of the second (a straight-ahead Mid-Century-Modernist-style European crime thriller, along the lines of Rififi or The Talented Mr. Ripley), all while elegantly transferring all the things that make these two parts of a trilogy to begin with, not only from a plot standpoint but also a stylistic one. Sheesh, who knew that this former Harvard professor and NEA grant recipient would be so good at churning out a contemporary pulp-fiction piece?!

In fact, that's the first thing to understand about this book; that much like Cormac McCarthy's "Border Trilogy," Domini's "Naples" books are not direct sequels to each other at all, but rather are connected in these more ephemeral, more complex ways. To begin with, as easily guessed, they all take place in the Italian city of Naples, in the months following a speculative earthquake supposedly in the early 2000s that never actually happened in real life; and then all of them as well deal mostly with three specific groups of people found there after the earthquake -- the Italians who grew up there, the Bush-Era do-gooder Americans there with NATO and the UN, and the poor African immigrant community out on the edges of the city, who as always were hit hardest by the natural disaster. Each of the books, then, concentrate on one group or another, mostly standalone tales between books but with certain fun little connections, like a major character of one having a cameo in another.

As those who read my review of the original book know, Earthquake ID concentrated mostly on Americans, fashioning a complicated and highly symbolic story regarding a suburban teen from a relief-org family who seems to develop the ability to magically heal through touch, and the overstressed guilty-Catholic mother who is suddenly worshipped by the locals like a Madonna for it; so what a surprise, then, to find that Periphery is written mostly from the point of view of the Italians, and that at the end it's mostly a traditional potboiler melodrama, albeit one superbly written (but more on that in a bit). To be specific, it's the story of young art historian Fabbrizio, who has dreams of an eventual aboveground conservator position at some cushy museum, but for now because of family financial problems has been lured into the decidedly shadier world of the contemporary Mafia (violent thugs known as the Camorra), appraising stolen antiques for a group of neighborhood criminals and even sometimes creating exquisite fakes. His reputation has already started spreading across the gossipy network of the city's underground (which Domini smartly compares more than once to a real-life city-sized physical version of MySpace); and that's how he comes to the attention of a beautiful, manipulative American who sometimes goes by Shanti, sometimes by Daphne, who claims pasts not only as a savvy dealer in New York but a trainwreck lesbian in San Francisco and a naive farmgirl in Iowa.

"Shanti" first presents herself as a sexy New-Ager, in need of a guide to take her to an "unsullied" tomb and to grant her some private time at it one night, so that she can perform a certain Goddess ceremony in the "pure environment" it was designed for; ah, but just five pages into the novel, we learn just as Fabbro does that the earthquake-disturbed tomb they end up going to out on the periphery of town (hence the book's title) was not picked at random by Shanti at all, and that the nighttime pagan ritual was all an elaborate ruse in order to steal a partially-dug jewel-covered necklace from it, so that she can smuggle it back to the US and into the hands of waiting buyers. And how does she plan on doing this? Oh, that's right, by being "Daphne" during the day, a Gap-wearing sorority-girl mid-level bureaucrat at the American consulate, taking advantage of the earthquake's chaos in order to transport hundreds of thousands in stolen goods in her diplomatic pouch, without any of her coffee-slurping officemates being the wiser.

And so I guess all this begs for a certain piece of information right away -- that for all of you simply looking for a well-done crime novel, you can rest assured that this actually is one, not one of those fussy, overly-written pretentious messes that professors like calling "a meditation on crime" or whatever the f-ck. In fact, as mentioned, this was one of the pleasant surprises of this book, after first reading Earthquake ID and falling so in love with the very deliberate concentration on language shown there; that's half the reason to read that original book in the first place, the same reason one reads Denis Johnson or John Updike, so to wallow in the attention to ultra-intelligent writing being displayed. It's the sign of a truly gifted artist, I think, when they can shift gears so profoundly like this, and really embrace the details of whatever style they've chosen to work in; it elevates a writer in my mind to a level I just insanely worship, a rare level in my life that only a handful of writers like TC Boyle and Philip Roth ever reach.

But make no mistake; this is a gorgeously written book, easily one the most lit-dense crime thrillers you'll ever read, and there's a good reason I think that it reminds me so much more of the classy post-noir work of Mid-Century Modernism than the crappy supermarket fare of so many contemporary genre pieces. And that frankly taps as well into why this should be considered the second book in an ideological trilogy, because of all the delicious little jokes and connections that Domini slips into the manuscript, not only just dozens of wonderful turns of phrase but also sly references to characters and locations from the first novel. I love, for example, how an important aspect of both books turns out to be the muddy refugee camp set up by the UN; but how this camp plays two very different roles in two very different storylines, and is seen by the main characters from two entirely different viewpoints. (And in fact Domini admitted in a recent interview that the third book of this trilogy, which he's working on as we speak, will concentrate on characters from this African immigrant community already mentioned; so I have a feeling that we're in for yet another profoundly different look at this refugee camp by the time the trilogy is finished.)

The book is full of things like this -- references again to the sociological strata of civilizations found in the basements of these crumbling old homes and churches, references again to the fascinating relationship this city has with the nearby Rome, references again to the Chicago-style institutional corruption that makes the city ironically function pretty well on a day-to-day basis. I love that Domini is able to throw all these things into such a chaotic mix, along with the usual touchstones of a typical genre story, plus his own very unique, very layered personal style, and somehow comes out on the other end with something even readable, much less stunning in its quality and deserving of all the award nominations the entire trilogy has so far racked up. It is again a perfect example of the fabled rare book I am constantly on the lookout for here at CCLaP -- a book that effortlessly straddles the line between high and low art, that is imminently worth it to the discerning heavy reader but not an overwhelming challenge to the casual one. It's been a real treat to get to read these first two volumes of the trilogy so far, and needless to say that I'm highly looking forward to the third.

Out of 10: 9.6

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:31 AM, February 18, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |