Christ in Concrete

by Pietro di Donato
[Bobbs-Merrill, $2.50]
A YOUNG man’s writings are nearly always unrelentingly casuistic and earth-bound, unless by chance he has been coddled into premature acceptance, or into some arrogance a la mode. All recent first novels of value, from Celine to Farrell to Steinbeck, belong either openly or latently to this highly judgmental school. The tone is casuistic, if the content is not; narrative is a secondary concern. This trend is particularly brilliant when, as it happens now and again, a sensitive intelligence is spawned within the trembling squalor and din of poverty, and yet proves tough enough to survive the myriad institutions of advantage expressly designed to nullify the disturbing miracle.
Pietro di Donato, the self-educated son of an Italian immigrant master bricklayer, is a shining figure to add to the proletarian gallery of artists. In his Christ in Concrete, di Donato has written an autobiographical account of his childhood amidst the immigrant laboring class. He tells of births, deaths, hunger, lust, and gluttony— no more, no less. It is a headless life of which he writes.
How strange and touching it is to see another Leopardi, as it were, a very sensuous and delicately organized mind, springing forth from the raucous Hoboken slums. Never will this mind, for sheer lack of time, rival a Leopardi’s intellectual and poetical accomplishments. So much more the pity. This bricklayer with a profile fit to decorate a coin will never create a prose equal of A Silvia, nor will his latter-day rebellion rise to the supple power of Pensieri. And yet about the very first work he has created there is a curiously similar linguistic harmony, a distinctly Italian quality, and there is the same cold, practical, eminently Latin pessimism, a concrete pessimism, and the same violent, exhibitionist outbursts of black passion.
Christ in Concrete has its weaknesses, of course. The characterizations of the group of Italian construction workers may seem thin to thoroughly American notions. But it must be understood that the Italian soul is essentially ‘thin.’ The Italian peasant and workman live themselves out fully as part of a family, or of an aggregate of some sort all committed to the same style. Christ in Concrete recognizes this limit.
Donato’s use of Italian rhythms in English is remarkably adroit and pleasant. At times they produce an elegiac effect. In spots the book is hysterical, especially in its repeated emphasis on the physical aspects of death. Despite operatic lapses, never does the pure intention of the writer falter, and the intention counts, for the novel is casuistic. The feeling for non-Italians sometimes runs astray, but these characters are all of minor importance. Donato’s knowledge of the flesh, of the smell of a worker’s fist, of ‘the husband’s smell so precious,’ of the sensation of a widow ‘with only a window-ledge at bosom,’ is almost too strong. It is shot through with pain, and pain brings revulsion. This was not Donato’s aim.
Of course the book is accurate, compassionate, and so on. But the miracle is that a man reared in obscure suffering, with the sound of an alien tongue in his ears, without aid of any kind should demonstrate the sweet truth that intelligence and dignity are impartially bestowed in life’s curious scheme.