Articles by: Fred Gardaphe

  • Art & Culture

    Rolling With Life’s Changes Ideas

    Thieves Never Steal in the Rain, is Marisa Labozzetta’s fourth book of fiction, her second of short stories. These stories differ from her first collection, At the Copa, in that they are linked, meaning there are familiar characters and settings throughout the ten stories; this makes the fiction ring like a novel by the time you finish reading them all.

    Labozzetta’s previous work has garnered critical attention and awards such as a Pushcart  Prize for At the Copa—also a finalist for the prestigious John Gardner Fiction Award in 2009, and Sometimes it Snows in America was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award. One of the stories in this new collection, “Forecast for a Sunny day,” won the Watchung Arts Center Award for Short Fiction in 2010. The author carries her award-winning skills to new levels in this work.

    In “Villa Foresta,” the opening story, Joanna and Elliot, a middle-aged couple who have lost a young daughter to an early death by accident, travel to Italy to get away from it all only to find themselves closer to their daughter than ever before, realizing that grief can’t always overcome the loss that caused it.

    Rosemary and Nate, another middle-aged couple are introduced in “Deluxe Meatloaf,” where they meet for a dinner that signals the end of their marriage, something that takes Rosemary, a successful advice columnist, by surprise. Rosemary’s answers to her readers often contains a recipe for some food that will aid in dealing with the problem she addresses; without a clue, or a recipe for her own problems, Rosemary deals with this loss by emptying her sorrows in the street outside the restaurant.

    Labozzetta is a master at capturing the internal and external forces that bring change into the lives of her characters, and expressing them through a variety of voices. Whether it’s self perceived (and obsessed) obesity, as in “Pretty Face” or a mistaken reading of how good others have it, as in “A Perfect Father,” the author explores the strengths of her characters so thoroughly that their weaknesses seem natural partners. You can’t have the good in life without the bad, and somehow you have to learn how to live a life balancing the two. 

    Some succeed, some fail, but all of her characters teach us much about our own lives. The female cousins who are the protagonists in each story come together in “Comfort Me, Stranger,” to save Rosemary when the depression from her divorce makes it impossible for her to continue her advice column. Joanna, Nancy, Barbara and Angie, all take turns responding to Rosemary’s readers, each failing to meet the reader’s needs, yet together they succeed in saving their wounded cousin, though everyone is worried about the roommate she takes in to help ease her loneliness.

    The final two stories bring us into the world of dealing with aging and dying parents, and
    in these stories the characters come together to help and sometimes hinder each other
    as they face new challenges. In this, as in the other stories, Labozzetta reminds us that supernatural and the common provide ways of dealing with the ups and downs of the loves and losses of family life. 

  • Art & Culture

    A Young Man’s Futile Flight Toward Freedom

    East Liberty, Pennsylvania, a working-class neighborhood of Pittsburgh, has been the setting for much of the fiction and some of the poetry of Joseph Bathanti. His first novel, about to be reprinted, was in fact entitled “East Liberty.” In his latest novel, “The Life of the World to Come,” Bathanti returns to his birthplace to set in motion all the things that can turn a good boy bad. George Dolce, a kid born to working-class parents—both children of Italian immigrants—is a smart, hardworking college kid who gambles just enough to help his family out.

    His bets, for the most part are smart and safe, and designed to get him through college and into an Ivy League law school.

    When he takes a job at the local pharmacy, run by Mr. Rosechild, a Jewish man who has money to burn and a loyalty to his home team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, George hones in on his bookie’s business, taking the pharmacist for the money he needs to keep his family from in their home when his father loses his job.

    The worse happens after George falls in love with Rosechild’s daughter, and the pharmacist’s betting gets out of hand. George gets in trouble with his bookie, which means he also must deal with the local gangster who runs things in the hood.

    The result is a tragic story of a young man’s fall from grace and his futile flight toward freedom. Throughout the novel, George narrates what happens as well as what could happen.  The result is a narrative  tension that keeps the reader wondering how it’s all going to end.

    Bathanti, a poet as well as a natural-born story teller, casts a literary crime story that becomes part thriller, part coming-of-age account of something that could happen to any smart kid who tries too hard to fight what he perceives could be the fate of following in his father’s hopeless footsteps. East Liberty is a place where even the best of the local kids end up on its skid-row streets. We see it all first, as George gives his middle-class girlfriend a tour of the neighborhood in her father’s Cadillac, and later, as George turns into Michael Roman and walks Crow, his new girlfriend, through East Liberty’s tough streets as he tries to make good all the bad he's done.

    While it’s too late to change the past, George hopes it’s not too late to save his soul. Somewhere between George’s fantasies and the narrator’s reality lies the magic that makes this novel a must read. This tale of two Georges, crafted by a master of the literary trade, reminds us that literature can still do more than any film to reveal the extremes humanity can handle when facing the obstacles we all  face when trying to realize our dreams. 

  • Art & Culture

    The Life and Death of Modern Immigrants

    You might not know what it’s like to be a modern immigrant to Italy, in fact you might be someone who couldn’t care less, but if you read Margaret Mazzantini’s new novel you’ll get closer to knowing and caring.

    Morning Sea is the latest by the actress and storyteller who gave us prizewinning works like Don't Move and Twice Born, - made into a film directed by Sergio Castellitto, starring Penelope Cruz. 

    Beautifully translated from the Italian by Ann Gagliardi, the novel tells the stories of two families who shared similar paths across the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and Libya. Both leave homes for better lives spurred on by political and economic conditions they cannot control.

    Farid, the son of Omar and Jamila, comes from a family of Bedouins who have settled in the new Libya, ruled by Colonel Gaddafi where they live peacefully until the Arab Spring of 2011. Omar refuses to join loyalist forces in their battle against his people and his widow and son must head for the sea, a place that Farid has never been. Once they arrive on the shore they are lead to an old boat carrying too many refugees. Their crossing becomes the sad story of what must be done to survive.

    On the other shore, in Sicily, plays Vito on the beach, gathering what the waves bring in from out on the sea. He’s the son of Angelina the Tripolina. She was born in Tripoli to parents who were among the Italian colonists of 1938; Angelina was a child when Gaddafi forced her family out with all the Italians in 1970.

    She suffers from mal d’afrique - the nostalgia of her childhood in Libya combined with the terror of having been forced to return to her parents’ homeland as a refugee. While she marries and gives birth to a son, she cannot overcome being, what her husband calls her, “a deportee.” Vito’s father has moved to New York and remarried.

    While he enjoys his time in the big U.S. city, he wants to see the land that his grandparents have told him so much about. When Angelina returns to Libya with Vito and her mother, Angelina tracks down Ali, her old boyfriend, only to find that he’s living happily with several wives and loyally serving in the Colonel’s Secret Police, and Vito learns why his mother has behaved so strangely all these years.

    The story returns to Farid and his mother on the refugee boat that become little more than a body barge, ferrying corpses hidden by those who are afraid to let their dead loves slip into the sea. Angelina has never liked the sea, but later as she learns to live without Vito as the boy has moved to London on his own, she wanders toward the waves and comes upon the shed where Vito kept the treasures he gathered from what floated up on the beach. Here she finds what other have lost at sea, never knowing how connected she is to the junk her son used to collect.

    The power of this story is in the simplicity of its events and the compact style of writing that Mazzantini uses to carve scenes that evoke strong feelings for strangers. You might never know a refugee, but having read Morning Sea, you will feel what it might be like to have lived and died as one.

  • Library: Articles & Reviews

    Italian Signs in American Sports

    Quite often we take our sports heroes to be individuals, at best, symbolically connected to the racial and ethnic groups they come from. But in Gerald R. Gems’ new study, Sport and the Shaping of Italian American Identity, the impact of ethnic culture helps us to see just what helped to produce thousands of

    sports heroes from the Italian American Community. From Joe DiMaggio to Joe Montana, Donna Caponi to Mary Lou Retton, the efforts of Italian immigrants and their descendants have shaped the history of American sport.

    If a casual glance at sports history in the United States provides a wealth of positive  representations of Americans of Italian descent, just imagine what an in-depth study can do.

    Gems, a professor of Health and Physical Education at North Central College in Naperville, IL, digs deep into American sociological and cultural history to help us understand the role that ethnicity plays in the development of an individual’s success in sports.

    Through thorough readings of the many studies that preceded his, Gems gleans pertinent information that provides rich insights into the Italian American presence in American sports—something he sees both as ways of maintaining ethnic identity and enabling it to change as immigrants move from Italians to Americans.

    Beginning with what he sees as a lack of national identity, due to the timing of mass emigration from Italy, Gems builds a strong case for explaining how Italians, through participation and excellence in American sports, fashioned new American identities while preserving older, useful aspects of Italianitá. This is the key to understanding the evolution of Italian America.  

    Gems uses many sources from a variety of scholarly disciplines to present first, a cultural study of Italian immigration to the United States, and then a sociological explanation of the movement of working class Italians from urban and rural centers of initial settlement to the suburban middle class.

    His work on race tackles the difficult questions of the role whiteness plays in shaping American identities. There are no pictures, as one would expect in a book that deals with some of America’s most iconic figures.

    Everything is presented in words that explain the various ways that sports shaped Italian Americans and how they, in turn, reshaped America. “Italian successes not only developed an ethnic pride and a great national identity,” he writes, “but headto-head competition offered the opportunity to dispel notions of physical inferiority and gain a measure of retribution for ethnic slurs and insults that accompanied the stereotypes of Italians.” Finally, we have, in one place, the source of a great deal of ethnic pride.

    Gems balances the highs and the lows of sports history by not avoiding the shame that accompanied some aspects of assimilation that often appear through reverse racism, created in part by historical amnesia and ignorance of the immigrant past.

    The same Italians who were discriminated against on the playing field, sometimes turned into racists themselves. Whether it was the individuals who expressed their racism as a way of belonging to the mainstream majority, or the African-American and Italian-American groups that fought over figures such as Franco Harris, the Italian American presence in sports and fanatic spectatorship has become a microcosm of what’s gone right and wrong in the United States.

    Taking on the world of sports as a whole, Gems’ study adds depth to previous books such as Lawrence Baldassaro’s “Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball,” and the Wikipedia compilation of Italian Americans in boxing, and transcends Nick Manzello’s biographical study, “Legacy of the Gladiators: Italian Americans in Sports,” to present a rich and detailed study worthy of attention by scholars and everyday sports fans alike.

  • Library: Articles & Reviews

    Two Sides of theSame Coin

    These real-life stories are set in Melrose Park, Illinois, but the location could be Anywhere, USA. Bruno’s observations on his over ninety years of life there, from childhood through his retirement, cover a range of public and private experiences that brings out the best and worst of our common humanity.

    Stories of hoi polloi
    From his early days as a young lawyer whose clients included some of the most notorious
    gangsters of our times, to his legal encounters with the Melrose hoi polloi of the 1940s through the 1990s, Bruno reveals his role in such feats as uncovering and breaking the illegal baker’s union that once put stamps on loaves of bread, standing up to Bobby Kennedy’s bullying of innocent people, and the many ways in which he assisted those who needed protection by and from the law.

    Throughout it all he maintains a distance from his subjects that brings out an uncommon authority hard to achieve when writing memoirs. Bruno’s experiences and sharp insights into Chicago life attracted Robert DeNiro who has consulted him for his next film.

    Though some of his stories might be familiar to those who live in the localities of which he writes, most never knew as much as Barney, and so he fills important background gaps that enrich the stories, enlightening us with new ways of seeing old experiences. Here we have not only the realizations of the mythical American dream, but also the failures behind the successes, something that has been missing in traditional histories, especially of Italian America.

    Bruno explores the lives of working-class people as they come into contact with uses and abuses of the rich and raw passions of those who longed to make a place for themselves and their families in the new land. His take on the evolution of organized crime in Chicago, “In Da ‘Heyday,’” is a simple and sober retelling of the facts behind the mythic “Outfit,” and works quite well when followed by “From Italian to American,” “Guts Sans Glory,” and a number of tales of Villa Scalabrini (originally a home for aging Italians) to reveal a wider range of heroic behavior than we normally get from such stories.

    Pain and compassion

    Take these stories for what they are, one man’s attempt to mark the time he has spent living in a Chicago suburb as a lawyer for the poor and the powerful; through it all he remained calm and stable, and he tells it all with the peace that comes with a long life.

    He has been the eye in the middle of a strong storm, a witness to the power of nature and to the will of humans to survive all that they face. He calls this collection A Tear and a Tear in the Heart, reminding us that pain and compassion are two sides of the same coin we call life.

    *This is interview is also available as a video
    Watch it on i-ItalyTV >>>

  • Library: Articles & Reviews

    BOOK. The Latest Effort of a Master Storyteller

    You might know Richard Vetere through his poetry, his plays, his films, or his novels, but no matter the venue, he’s a true storyteller, able to take you into a world that’s familiar, but always doing it in unfamiliar ways. This is the mark of a master. His latest effort is a novel that brings life out of death to tell a story that’s one of his best.

    The Writers’ Afterlife tells the story of Tom Chillo, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and poet who dies before he can achieve the fame of which he has always dreamed. Chillo forsakes most of what us mortals dawdle in on our ways to the end of the road; he steadfastly dedicates his time and energies to his writing, avoiding all that might take his eye off the written page. Along the way he achieves success, but not in the way he needs in order to make it into the same afterlife as those greats he studied and emulated throughout his life.

    The plot

    Dying at the age of 44 from a stroke, Chillo is carried dreamlike into an afterlife reserved only for artists. Guided by Joe, a minor artist from history, Chillo is taken first on a tour of the writers’ afterlife where he rubs shoulders with the likes of “Eternals” such as Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Frank Kafka, Eugene O’Neil, Charles Bukowski and John Fante, and many more who reside in a place for those who actually achieved fame during their lives or long after their deaths because some living person persisted on the writer’s behalf. Those who don’t make it to the place reserved for the Eternals go either to the place for those who were famous on Earth but now forgotten or to The Valley of Those on the Verge, where Chillo nds himself. Joe explains that Tom will live without pain except for, “An acute sense of anxiety [for] Never being famous.” But there’s hope even here; Tom

    has earned one chance to alter his state: “one opportunity to go back to life and do all you can to change the fate of your fame,” and this becomes the driving force of the novel’s plot.

    What literature is made of

    The dead writers are able to fashion their afterlives out of the same imagination that wrought the works that made them artists. They can choose to experience all this during their favorite time of their lives, even living with their characters if

    they so choose. Vetere uses the early part of the novel to comment on the status of Chillo’s favorite writers and achieves a remarkable commentary on the state of literature in the mind of a writer, reminding us that literature is made out of other literature, and that every writer is, in many ways, in some type of competition with all the other writers who ever existed for an audience. He does all this in prose that’s lean, direct, and keeps the wheels of plot turning to a surprising finale. Chillo meets other promising writers in the Valley of Those on The Verge, and shares stories and sometimes bodies with those in whom he confides. He feels real love for the first time in this afterlife, and because of it, gets caught up in glitch that could ruin his one final chance to be called to his place with the Eternals.

    A n all-Vetere tale

    What happens when he comes back to Earth comes to us in a film-like tragicomedy that is part Dickens, part Poe, and part Mel Brooks, but a tale that ends up all Vetere. This is what the good writers do; they learn from their predecessors, and then as they work on their craft they move from imitation to innovation and develop their skills

  • Life & People

    Stereotypes? Don’t “Fugget About It”

    Give me a break. The latest attempt to bottle and sell the dying gasp of the gangster figure in American culture now comes to us from north of the border, and “Fugget About It” is not just the name of this Canadian cartoon series, it also refers to what you can do with it, because this silly show will be more easily forgotten than remembered. 

    There is nothing new in this animated attempt to parody the Italian American gangster that at the same time lampoons the eccentricities of U.S. and Canadian cultures. Unlike “The Sopranos,” one of the main victims in its parodic sites, the series provides little substance for serious interpretative attention. 

    Here are all the same jokes, some taken to ridiculous absurdities, others nothing more than dead horses overbeaten by unimaginative writing. The only discussion warranted by this latest incarnation of the Italian American gangster is just how these stereotypes can be taken seriously by anyone, especially those suffering from what I have termed, “irony deficiency.” Irony deficiency comes from ignorance, fear, and or the inability to detach oneself from what it is that can be ironized. Irony deficiency leads to the disease of literalism evidenced by the inability to see any serious use of irony at work or play. 

    To understand how and why stereotypes can affect viewers’ conceptions of reality, we need to know where stereotypes come from and why are they used. Stereotypes are meant to project possibilities, not to reflect realities. Stereotypes in storytelling have always been used to entertain adults and to instruct youth about proper and improper behavior. Indeed, as Freud discovered, the early myths were stories that helped to explain human behavior. As we have created better understanding of the working of the human mind, storytelling became less dependent on the use of types, that is, as writers began to delve into ways of representing the mind, the use of flat figures became more and more relegated to popular entertainment. 

    Stereotypes eliminate complexities and allow you to rest assured in your expectations of what will happen so that you are lulled and not jolted by stories. Whenever a stereotype is destroyed, it is usually through a sophisticated experience that leads us deeper in our understanding of what is human. 

    There is a difference between storytelling and life telling, and that difference is made evident through a proper education. Stereotypes mask the reality they attempt to portray or represent. In order to be drawn into a story we need to pretend that this is something that might really happen. If this doesn’t happen, then the artist has lost us and we are always conscious that this is a story; these thoughts lead us into other thoughts, like what we’re going to do after the movie or other things that occupy our daily thoughts, taking us out of the dream world of story and back to the real world we were trying to escaped in the first place. 

    While the response of any educated mind to “Fugget About It” would be to wave the whole thing off as a joke, for those who don’t know the difference, there is nothing funny about this subtle reinforcement of stereotypes. Such a naïve approach to “humor,” fueled by what I have called “irony deficiency” — or the inability to perceive when irony is intended — leads to people feeling offended by such stereotypes. There’s a problem here that’s rather complex. 

    Film and video artists believe they are using these figures to say something about American society, and the best ones do; however, but really, those who do not understand these stereotypes cross the line between reinforcing ignorance and changing perceptions. I attribute this to the late development of a recognizable Italian American intelligentsia and the absence of exposure to alternative experiences of Italians in American history. Until Italian Americans are educated to their own histories, know their own stories, and tell them to others, they will never have the power to challenge the negative images that are presented. Until those histories become part of education in the United States, the stereotypes will continue to be interpreted as reality. Without cultural developments such as the Harlem Renaissance, the American Civil Rights movement would have never developed to change perceptions about African Americans. Where is the Italian American Renaissance? 

    The only way to deal with the persistence of the stereotypes that distort perceptions of Italian Americans is to become more public with culture, to exchange ignorance for knowledge and prejudice with trust. If we achieve this in the classroom we can turn students into teachers, who will make the streets a better place. We must inundate the classrooms, the museums, the libraries, theaters, and media with versions and visions of Italian American culture that place those stereotypes in the shadow of the great lights we have created for the world to see. 

    The key to disarming a stereotype and relegating it to its simple storytelling function lies in the ability of the beholder, the audience, to acknowledge the greater complexity of life that the stereotypes obscure. And this ability comes only through experience. When your experience is limited to two-dimensional stories, your life-view becomes filtered by stereotypes. Remember what you see is not about accurately representing reality, but rather is a way of telling you a story. You need to ask yourself: What story am I being told? What am I asked to believe? How can I interpret this so that I can test it against reality? 

    The storyteller has a goal that is quite different from the story receiver. The storyteller must get you to believe or see something in a certain way, but your goal should be to see it in any number of ways so that you can disarm the power of the storyteller and use that power as a way to improve your life. When we have learned this, and moved to insure that culture and its institutions are sensitive to our Italian American identities and heritage, then we will begin to concentrate on the light that illuminates and not the shadows of stereotypes that distort our vision of the world.

    * Fred Gardaphe is Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College/CUNY and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. He has published several books, incuding From Wiseguys to Wise Men: Masculinities and the Italian American Gangster (Routledge, 2006).

  • Library: Articles & Reviews

    BOOK. Becoming American While Staying Italian

    Not your typical academic writer, Christopher Castellani has stuck closer to the streets in his work and in his art than most graduates of MFA programs. The director of Grub Street, a Boston creative writing program outside of academia, Castellani practices what he teaches and he’s good at both. His latest novel builds on his two previous novels (A Kiss from Maddalena and The Saint of Lost Things), bringing some of his earlier protagonists to the brink of their mortality and others into the prime of their lives.

    His focus here is the Grasso family, composed of Antonio and Maddalena, immigrants from Santa Cecilia, a mountain town outside of Rome and their children, Prima, the late Tony, and Frankie. Antonio makes his living at the Al di La restaurant, which he hopes will stay in the family when he dies. He was grooming his first son, Tony, for the job, but Tony takes things into his own hands, disappointing his father, the only one who knows the real reason why Tony opts out. The loss of Tony affects each of the Grassos differently, but all of them with the same intensity. The choices they make in their lives are all tied to the trauma of losing Tony.

    Prima, a wild girl in her teens becomes a responsible housewife, raising three sons with a successful ‘merican husband, becomes a mother obsessed with her boys and with the idea of taking her parents back to Italy one more time before they die. Frankie, a graduate student in English, is away at school, but finds any excuse he can to come back home to his family, the only place where he feels connected to the world. A true mama’s boy, Frankie doesn’t have what it takes to run the restaurant, and does what he can to avoid dealing with the loss of his older brother. Antonio can’t do anything but run the restaurant until Maddalena starts needing him more and more at home. Maddalena drowns her grief in dance classes and daily phone calls with Frankie, and does all that she can to separate herself from her Italian past. When Prima surprises them all with tickets to return to Italy, Antonio is ecstatic, Maria is adamantly against it, and Frankie sides with her. The tension around this proposed trip drives each of the Grassos into different ways of coping with the others. And in this tension, the novel moves in interesting directions.

    Castellani is a master at telling each character’s story without depending on one more than the other. In this way, we get a rich account of the dynamics at work in this Italian family that takes them through practical and dysfunctional behaviors. In this way, the author captures family love like no other. The novel becomes a beautiful way of seeing the real world, certainly more challenging and revealing than anything that reality television has served up. Castellani takes us all for a spin around the emotional block that encircles the relationships our family creates both within and outside our homes. As Maddalena ages, she begins to lose track of things, and Antonio takes it upon himself to protect her from a diagnosis of oncoming dementia. Just when you think Prima’s plan is lost, something happens to reverse Maddalena’s feelings and the family heads off on a trip back to the Old Country, but it becomes something that none of them had imagined.

    More than completing a triology, All This Talk of Love, caps character development at its best. Through simple language, even when dealing with Frankie’s experience in graduate school, Castellani weaves a complex net of actions that takes the immigrant saga well beyond timeworn plots, showing us all that becoming American effects, but doesn’t erase, our being Italian.                 

  • Op-Eds

    NYC's "Italian" Mayor between Past and Future

     Like many New Yorkers, I am filled with hope that our new mayor will indeed lead the city to progress in many social and cultural ways, and that he will live up to the promises to make one city out of two.  

    However, I noted that when di Blasio mentioned his Italian connection in his victory speech,  it was only in relation to his past: his immigrant ancestors and their home town.  
    Like so many Italian Americans, our mayor-elect's notion of Italian identity comes from the past, and so is destined to become irrelevant as that past recedes further and further away from today's needs. While his children, Dante and Chiara, have names that ring of Italianita', I wonder what they have to say about Italian American identity.  
    My hope is that this new mayor will mark an era in which Italian American identities can be strengthened through interactions with the Italy of today, and that whatever it is he loves about Italy will reflect more than nostalgia and impact our youth in the ways his Italian ancestors' experiences shaped Bill di Blasio. 

    * Fred Gardaphe, Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute


  • Op-Eds

    Buonanima, James Gandolfini

    I never met James Gandolfini, and probably the same goes for you, but it’s funny how I thought I knew him?  Funny how?  Funny, like he amused me.  Funny like no matter the role he played, I always found a way to connect to the character he was playing.  And while I never will really know the man, my life is different because I’ve seen his art at work.  
    In a rich and varied acting career, his characters seemed to bring out the best and worst of us no matter the role, perhaps that’s why so many of us think we liked the man.  He never seemed to play up or down for the paparazzi, perhaps that’s why we think we know him so well.  
    Tony Soprano was my buddy.  I happened to be going through therapy the same time he was seeing Dr. Melfi.  Each week I compared my experiences to his; I was made of some of the same stuff as he was, and while Gandolfini wasn’t Tony Soprano in real life, he was for me, a way to check my process and progress as I grew from a wiseguy into a wise man, and for that I thank Gandolfini, and the writers who gave him the material to interpret.  
    Gandolfini seemed so perfect for the character he played, that it was hard to imagine him as any other character.  He seemed to exist once and forever as the suburban man who grew up and out of a working class Italian neighborhood.  His struggles with his past and present left him little time to look to the future.  He had the good sense to know he needed some way to connect to a future that would be different from his father’s, and as he strove to make his way there, he ran into all the obstacles that an undigested and often misunderstood past can provide.
    He knew he was Italian, but he didn’t know how.  He knew he was a man, but not in the same way his father and uncle had been men.  He knew that family and loyalty to friends was important, but he didn’t always know the best way to get out of the problems they create for us.   He had an idea that things could be better, but he didn’t know how to make that happen.  For years we watched as he fumbled his way through his fictional life, showing us all what happens to those who can’t find a way beyond the violence that threatens us all if we don’t rise above those streets that are paved with the fears and prejudices that come from our past.  Through it all Tony Soprano became a vehicle in American culture that connected us to and enabled us to rethink all the fictional gangsters that preceded him.
    Like many male baby boomers in the throes of middle age, Tony was trying 
    to figure out who he is and why he does what he does.  He came to realize that he was not the man his father was and to want that his son’s life would be different from his. Trapped between the past and the present with an unimaginable future, he stumbled upon a way of feeling better. 
    Through Gandolfini's fine talent, Tony Soprano began the move away from that traditional, patriarchal sense of manhood that came from an old European model in which violence and silence could bring and sustain honor.  Through his therapy, he began to question the traditional order of things and his roles of husband, father, son, and gangster.   And so, in this way he became a 20th century trickster.  Society has always needed its tricksters and scapegoats to teach us what happens to those who dare to break taboos and social contracts.   In the hands of Italian American artists like Gandolfini, the gangster as trickster did not represent Italian America as much as it presented the last stand for an outdated patriarchy in America.  
    Even David Chase couldn’t kill Tony Soprano.  And when he came close a number of times, it was hard to imagine how the series could go on without Gandolfini.  Now that the actor is dead, we will go about our lives, not having to worry about Tony, for he will live as long as there are ways to screen video.  It will be different for those whose lives were actually touched by the real man who played his parts so well, for certainly there must have been much more to this gifted artist than met the audiences’ eyes.  Buonanima, James Gandolfini.  

    * Fred Gardaphe is the author of From Wiseguys to Wise Men: The Gangster and Italian American Masculinities (2006)