For all their bombast and near-pathological love of grandiosity, the modernist writers of the early 20th century are also responsible for some remarkably simple moments of beauty.
Think of the skywriting scene in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or the final lines of W. B. Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, where the aging narrator retreats from a life of unrequited love to “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.
It’s esteemed company to be in, to be sure, but the central image in Salvatore Scibona’s debut novel, The End, is so rich and so unabashedly in the modernist vein that it could be included on that shortlist retroactively.
The scene is 1950s small-town Ohio, during a frenzied parade marking a Catholic festival. Residents of the racially divided neighbourhood of Elephant Park have packed the streets on a muggy August evening to see a statue of the Virgin get carried through the town in celebration. Rocco LaGrassa, a hard-nosed Italian baker “shaped like a lightbulb”, stands on a rooftop and watches a quick-spreading piece of gossip bring the parade to a crashing halt.
This image is the book’s centrepiece, both thematically and aesthetically, and Scibona eventually recasts the story from six different perspectives. For Rocco, it’s a painful reminder of the family that is in the process of abandoning him: “Eleventh Avenue bled people into all its tributary streets” in the aftermath, and nearby children burst into tears, with “the welched-on promise of a fireworks display…the height of betrayal”. Forty-five pages in, and already there’s an encyclopedia’s worth of heartache.
As the book progresses, Scibona pans back to show the entirety of this neighbourhood with surgical precision. His characters are lush and wonderfully complex, their secondhand English flecked with a hundred subtle imperfections, and the central tragedy that links these disparate citizens together is nothing short of devastating.
The End takes one more nod from its modernist predecessors in its perfectly formed architecture, which is on display as much as any plot point. It takes those quietly powerful moments and assembles them into something truly monumental.
Graywolf Press, 294 pp, $26.50, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, August 7, 2008
[UPDATE: An excerpt from this review is blurbed in the paperback edition of The End, in stores October 2009. Woohoo!]