Friday, August 21, 2015

Book Review: "The Boys from Eighth and Carpenter" by Tom Mendicino

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Kensington for making it available.

Tom Mendicino's The Boys from Eighth and Carpenter ratchets up the tension pretty soon after it starts. One night, after helping his older brother Frankie out of a bit of a bind, Michael Gagliano makes a shocking discovery that has the potential to drastically change the course of both of their lives.

Sounds pretty interesting, right? And obviously, if you're reading the book, you know what the discovery is, although you don't know the context of how it got there. However, Mendicino shifts the course of the book after that, going back in time to when Luigi Gagliano first came to America from Italy with his mother, to meet the father he barely knew. He follows in his father's footsteps and runs a barber shop, waiting until the day his wife would bear him a son, and she does—two, in fact.

Frankie and Michael are both fairly young when their mother dies, but even at age eight, Frankie understands the solemnity of the promise he makes his dying mother: to look after Michael for the rest of their lives. He protects Michael from their father's violent outbursts and from the not-always-motherly behavior of the succession of women Luigi marries after their late mother. As Michael grows up, he realizes that his brother Frankie is different, and needs his protection as much as Michael needed Frankie's when they were younger.

Frankie takes over their father's shop, transforming it to meet the changing South Philly neighborhood where it is located. Michael becomes a successful prosecutor with an eye on a political career. Despite Michael's worries about the way Frankie lives his life, and his disapproval of some of his choices, the brothers remain close, and both continue to protect each other, despite what that could mean to each of them.

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. It's a good story, and although I didn't feel as if the characters rose much above ethnic and sexual stereotypes in a number of ways, they were still interesting and complex in their own ways. I just wish that Mendicino hadn't delivered such a setup at the beginning of the story and then taken far too long to return to that part of the plot, because while laying out the family history was helpful to understanding the characters, after a while it was the same events and behavioral patterns over and over again.

Having read Mendicino's first novel, Probation, I know he's a talented writer. While this book didn't grip me, his storytelling ability is still evident, and there is a poignancy and a richness to the story that appeals.

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