I posted a new projected first round for next week’s MLB Rule 4 draft yesterday, with a new name up top, and did a brief Klawchat as well. I’ve already heard some fresh things since that mock went up, including that the Astros aren’t entirely off Bryant after all.
I enjoyed Alessandro Piperno’s debut novel, The Worst Intentions, even though it often turned crude, because it was funny and featured so many cleverly crafted characters. His second novel, Persecution, shows far more polish and greater empathy with its flawed protagonist, with Piperno’s dry wit now applied to a tragic story, the fall from grace of a pediatric oncologist whose aloofness leads to his undoing.
Dr. Leo Pontecorvo had what he thought was a perfect life – a loving wife, two sons, a lucrative job with meaning as well as social importance, a freelance gig writing about health issues for a major Italian newspaper – until it is shattered by two accusations of wrongdoing, presented to us in reverse order. The novel opens with the Pontecorvos sitting down to a family dinner with the TV news on in the background, only to have the broadcaster announce that Leo stands accused of a sexual relationship with his 13-year-old son’s girlfriend, Camilla. Through flashbacks, Piperno’s unnamed yet omnipresent narrator leads the reader through Leo’s rise and fall, including allegations of financial impropriety and the disastrous consequences of his mishandling of Camilla’s crush on him, as well as the less-than-perfect truth below the surface of his marriage and family life, so that he is by turns sympathetic and deserving of his fate.
Pontecorvo’s emotional immaturity mirrors that of the lead character in The Worst Intentions, but without the earlier book’s emphasis on sexual immaturity (although Leo has his moments). He’s never quite cut the cord with his domineering Jewish mother, and has floated through so many difficult situations through either the force of his intellect or the power of his personality that he’s unable to cope with actual crises, often leaving the management to his doting wife. He’s hopeless when faced with people who have competing agendas because he assumes others will be rational and thoughtful, and can’t imagine them pursuing actions that might do him harm. That gullibility leads him to lend money to a wayward student who tricks him into appearing to commit usury, which also points to the scientific, rational-minded Leo’s inability to responsibly handle anything to do with money. It also means that when Camilla’s crush on him first takes form, he has no concept of how others might perceive his responses, and walks right into what might have been a trap – although the reliability of the narration is an open question even as the book ends.
At heart, Leo believes himself to be a good man, but his actions speak to a superficial and pretentious inner character. He loves to take photographs, but refuses to take family pictures, even on vacations, because they’re not artistic:
Her husband only photographed dead things. And, even worse, he lavished all the care in the world on doing it. But ask him to take a “normal” photograph, who knows, the boys learning to ride a bicycyle, his wife in evening dress or posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or wherever the hell he wanted? Certainly not, not a chance. When you asked him, the artist felt outraged.
He’s not an artist in any sense of the word, of course, but the aspirational nature of his behavior in every one of his endeavors, even in parenting (which leads to acts of emotional cruelty toward his sons), reveals his own insecurity – which becomes fully apparent when his reaction to the public nature of the scandal is to hide, literally and figuratively, in the basement, abandoning his wife and children while believing they’ve actually abandoned him. He’s an overgrown child, incapable of handling true adversity in an adult fashion, of proclaiming his innocence to his wife, or working to regain the trust of either of his sons, or doing much of anything to fight the charges against him. He goes underground – ironic for a man whose surname begins with the Italian word for “bridge” – and never emerges.
Piperno’s strongest resemblance to Philip Roth and other Jewish-American writers – Piperno’s father is Jewish, and both of Piperno’s protagonists are Italian Jews – lies in that strong sense of irony evident in Leo’s name. (His actions don’t reflect the courage of the astrological lion of his first name, either.) The pediatric oncologist undone by the accusations of a child, the
The main weakness of Persecution is the depiction of Leo’s wife, Rachel, although she may get a fuller treatment in the sequel, The Inseparables, still unpublished in English but intended from the start as the second half of this diptych. Rachel Pontecorvo has much in common with her Biblical namesake – married to a doofus who is so naïve that he’s tricked by his brother and then father-in-law, she bears him two sons, and ends up suffering for her choices – but she’s a shadow in the book, nearly always the voice of reason when Leo is acting like a child. She’s never given the chance to reject him outright after the allegations, and we don’t see any curiosity about whether they’re true. Giving her character a third dimension would have improved the book beyond the study of Leo’s character, although I’ll reserve judgment until I read part two, which won the Italian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize last year.
If you appreciate Roth, or Joseph Heller, or the more mundane elements of Kurt Vonnegut’s works (as opposed to the sci-fi trappings around them), you must give Persecution a shot. Even during the moments when you’d like to give Leo a hard slap across the face, this portrait of a man whose superficially perfect life has lost its veneer to reveal an empty interior is searing, bitter, and funny.
Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m reading, but not enjoying, A Game of Thrones.