The Boston Castrato by Colin W Sargent (Barbican Press £9.99)
TO SAY that The Boston Castrato is Colin W Sargent’s interpretation of the great American novel writ small is no criticism.
By focusing largely on a specific location in a single year, and compressing the narrative into less than 300 pages, Sargent amplifies the tumult of individual lives as a reflection of the dominating forces of migration, crime and cultural experimentation that define them.
The author provides a fast-moving and evocative sequence of interlocking events that generate a sense of the pace of the dislocation within the US melting pot.
Old New England Brahmin families’ tortured and etiolated literary soirees coincide in a disinterested parallel with the life and death struggles of immigrant communities eking out a living in naval dockyards, mean streets and criminal gangs.
Before the predominant events of 1922 Boston, we see young Rafaele Pesca having his balls removed by a refusenik Neapolitan bishop determined to ignore the Roman Catholic Church’s new found disgust at the practice of castration.
Pesca is physically healed but psychologically frustrated when he is sent to the US under strict instructions from ecclesiastical bigwigs not to sing, thus denying him the reward for his handicap.
Sargent has Pesca journeying through the purgatory of an east coast teeming with contradictions and teaming up with Victor, the blind but all-seeing maitre d’ of the famous Parker House Hotel.
He depicts modernist poet Amy Lowell’s communist nephew mucking in with factory workers before heading off to Leningrad and demonstrates the inherently corrupt and fraudulent nature of municipal politics as a non-compliant transport secretary becomes rat food.
In so doing, The Boston Castrato stews up a brilliant, compelling and quite stunningly repulsive blend of characters, situations and dilemmas. The land of seeming opportunity is revealed as just another tawdry laboratory of exploitation.
So much about the modern US is explained here, not in a didactic manner but on its own, lying and exaggerated terms. Fiction tells the truths than mere facts cannot.
Apparently, this book was considered so subversive that no US imprint would touch it. Yet it has real literary value and it is to the credit of Barbican Press that we can read such an extraordinary literary expression of the American nightmare.