By Jonathan Woods
“Wake up! Wake up, for fuck’s sake!”
With this opening line we enter The Crossroads, Niccolo Ammaniti‘s frenzied, beautifully crafted tale of the crash & burn of three blue-collar buddies in present day Italy. These words are spoken by Reno Zena, one of the buddies, to his 13-year-old son Cristiano, as he shakes him awake in the middle of the night. Next door at the furniture factory the guard dog is having a barking fit and Reno can’t sleep.
As Reno reasons:
‘Do you know something that really gets up my nose? Stepping out of the shower in the morning, soaking wet, and putting my feet on freezing cold tiles…’ He smirked, loaded the pistol and held it out to [Cristiano] by the barrel: ‘I was thinking that what we need is a nice new dogskin mat.’
With these words Reno sends Cristiano out into a snowstorm dressed in pajamas, rubber boots and a windbreaker to take down the dog with a bullet from Reno’s pistol.
Back in the house Reno stares into the mirror at his own wrecked condition (“He was thirty-seven years old and he looked fifty…He couldn’t decide whether to piss or to throw up. His stomach contained a dozen beers, half a litre of grappa and a Poire William.”) and frets about whether Cristiano has “the balls to shoot a dog”. Not to worry, Cristiano kills the dog with a single shot. But when he returns home triumphant, he finds his father deep in drunken slumber.
Thus Ammaniti drops us willy-nilly into the crazed, motherless and wifeless household of Reno and Cristiano. Reno is brutal, nihilistic, smart, unemployed and self-destructive. Cristiano is trying to find his footing in the adult world looming ahead of him. Inexplicably there exists between these two a bond of love and respect that can only exist between a father and son. It is this deeply emotional relationship that gives the novel its moral compass in an otherwise chaotic and irrationally whirling world.
Next up Ammaniti introduces the other two members of the merry band of dysfunctional and misbegotten musketeers. First is the illegitimate, pizza-loving Quattro Formaggi, crazy as a loon from birth. His craziness is jolted to new heights when he accidentally touches a high-voltage power line with a metal fishing rod. He obsesses over a porn film he found in the trash staring Ramona and Bob the lumberjack. Second is Danilo Aprea, seriously alcoholic and of unsound judgment. He lives in a state of deep depression born of his guilt over his daughter’s death and his failed marriage.
All three musketeers are of the ranks of the Eurozone’s unemployed and unemployable. Unskilled and poorly educated, they bitterly lament their derailment to third world status. The construction jobs they once took for granted are now filled by migrant labor from North Africa and Albania. On a drunken picnic Reno, Danilo & Quattro Formaggi hatch a plot to steal an ATM machine as the means to temporary financial nirvana.
If this sounds a tad depressing, it’s not. Propelled by the velocity and unpredictability of Ammaniti’s storytelling, I read The Crossroads in a mesmeric fever. But just in case things get a little heavy from time to time, Ammaniti laces his tale with riotous, if pitch-black, humor.
Here the owner of the construction company that has been Reno’s employer for years is attacked in his office:
The next moment he flew over the desk and crashed into a wall covered with framed photographs. A second later a copy of his degree certificate…fell on his head.
Max thought the gas tank must have exploded…but then he saw paint spattered boots and two burly arms covered in ugly tattoos lifted him up by his lapels and pinned him against the wall like a poster.
He spat out all the air that he had in his body and, with his diaphragm contracted, tried to breathe in but without succeeding, and made a sound like the gurgle of a blocked drain…
At last the contraction of his diaphragm eased…and a stream of air flowed down his windpipe and into his lungs.
He brayed like a donkey in heat and gradually started breathing again. And as his purple face returned to its natural color he noticed that about twenty centimeters from his nose there was the smiling face of a skinhead.
Then he recognized it. His anal sphincter contracted to the diameter of a stick of macaroni.
It was Zena.
Add to this the arrival on stage of Beppe Trecca, the social worker who monitors Cristiano Zena’s upbringing. Beppe drives a Puma and lusts explosively for the lush Ida Lo Vino, the wife of his best friend. What a great name. And a great body. I immediately wanted to sleep with Ida Lo Vino.
Together Ida and Beppe plot an afternoon in Beppe’s brother’s vacation camper. As they fuck wildly, a winter storm descends. A knife-like metal sign shaped like a banana breaks loose in the wild wind and shears off the camper’s roof:
After the banana had turned the camper into a coupe, the storm had lifted up the cushions, the crockery, the Chinese food and everything else and dumped them in the car park.
Beppe Trecca and Ido Lo Vino lay locked in each other’s arms naked and trembling in the roofless sleeping compartment. Over their heads the sky twisted and howled…
“Beppe, what’s happening?” Ida shouted…
They took refuge in the Puma.
Needless to say the three musketeers’ plan to kidnap an ATM goes wildly awry.
Ammaniti is very good at taking you inside the heads of his characters. The scariest belongs to Quattro Formaggi. Truly, and frighteningly, you enter into the mind of an insane person. Zeno and Reno and Beppe are brilliantly and sympathetically drawn. And the supporting cast is strong. Maudlin and selfish, Danilo is the least interesting character. But this is a small complaint.
Ammaniti’s 406-page prize winning novel, told in 244 numbered chapters, moves with the speed of a Eurostar high-speed train at full throttle. Within the pages of The Crossroads he has crammed more human emotion, more spiraling insanity, more angst and more vaudevillian loopiness than can be found in a dozen lesser novels.
Canongate, January 2009
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