Piazza‘s narrator and central character is John Delano, a creation that feels more than a bit autobiographical, as both men grew up in the distinctly American suburbia of Long Island, New York in the post-war/Cold War era. Delano is a college professor of Cold War Studies who is disdained by his peers, but revered by his students for serving “History McNuggets.“ In other words, Delano has a flair for putting a pop culture spin on significant historical events, something that has convinced him he should write a memoir capturing all of the tidbits on paper that fall so effortlessly from his mouth in the classroom.
In the first chapter, Piazza lets Delano orient us to his background, and the writer‘s easy, nostalgic attention to detail is immediately evident:
“My Mother had just moved to New York City from Eau Claire in 1949, when she met Marie Kelso. Marie was four or five years older and lived in the same women‘s residence on Thirteenth Street, operated by the Salvation Army... She had been kind of wild -- code for premarital sex -- despite being a Catholic, but maybe because of that she became a sort of den mother to the younger women. She was in her late thirties before she finally got married, to a businessman named Bill. They never had any children.
My mother left the women‘s residence for her own apartment in 1951 and -- you know how these things go -- saw Marie occasionally, but when she married my father and moved out to Atlanticville, on Long Island, it got harder to maintain the old friendships. A phone call now and then, and then no phone calls for a long while.
Then, out of the blue, a call from Marie Kelso. It was 1962. She and Bill were living in New Jersey. “I wanted to see how the lovebirds were doing,“ she said. My mom talked to her for almost an hour, and by the end of the conversation, they had made plans for Marie to visit us in Atlanticville. As it turned out, Marie had something on her mind besides auld lang syne. She wanted my parents to join the John Birch Society.
My Mother had come to New York to work in retail, for which she had prepared at Thellinger‘s department store in Eau Claire. New York -- the great dream, as it still was. Not just a vehicle for making money but a destination, spiritual and material, in itself. She got a job at Saks and, over a year and a half, rose steadily from counter girl to assistant buyer. Her life was dotted with glamorous parties, encounters with movie stars; her clients included Rita Hayworth, and once she even brought clothes to Mae West‘s apartment. In pictures from that time, her honey-blond hair spills down over the shoulders of a beautiful striped silk blouse or a gray tailored suit, always a cigarette in her hand, laughing ...
She met my father one evening while she was pinch-hitting at one of the sweater counters during the pre-Christmas rush. Winking lights of Rockefeller Plaza, people rushing by on the sidewalks, the chill of December in the folds of their overcoats, smell of pretzels and chestnuts in the blue stove smoke ... He had stopped in to buy a sweater for his mother, and Mom had assisted him. He was still living with his parents on the far edge of Queens, working in the city, and he came back the next week, hunted her up, and they had a date, they began a courtship... He wasn‘t making a lot of money, but he was doing something, electrical engineering, that had the potential for growth, something technical that had required lots of training, and he was smart, he could be funny, he had a good family -- or, let us say, a large extended family with some material comfort. They got married.“
It would seem that Delanos book project would be something of a no-brainer, but it sets off a dizzying chain of events that move him back and forth in time. For starters, there‘s a major case of writers block caused by his inability to concentrate after the death of his estranged father. Mired in a “a big mishmash of history, myth, and my own personal experience,“ he begins reflecting on everything from his father‘s mental illness and the love affairs his mother turned to for comfort to Dylan going electric, JFK‘s assassination and the Summer of Love.
Delano‘s mental time travels to recreate some of these landmark events of the past are among some of the most vivid sections in Piazza‘s book, but not necessarily the most moving. Those come when Delano travels to Iowa to re-connect with his brother Chris, also estranged, to make sense of some of the personal history they shared - their own cold war. Delano harbors a hope that the past might be a balm to heal the present, and this is where Piazza could have played it safe with the story, but doesn‘t. What might have been a renewed relationship with his brother reveals something quite ugly and a return to the house he grew up in gives the novel a poignant and unexpected conclusion.
Gently but firmly, Piazza asks some tough questions. Can things broken ever be completely repaired, including families and souls? At what point does one leave the past behind for the present, or can they ever? Is it that no one growing up in the baby boomer era had the “normal“ family life we saw portrayed on “Father Knows Best“ and “Leave It to Beaver,“ and we all walked away with some sort of scar? If we embark on a journey down memory lane, can we ever be ready for what we might have to encounter?
It‘s not evasive that Piazza doesn‘t provide the answers to these questions, but uses his tale as a catalyst for personal exploration. He seems to be saying that answers can always be found, but they may not be the ones were looking for. Likewise, they might be in the pages of a history book, but more often, they exist somewhere in a place that is deeper, quieter and much harder to access.