Novel Paesans: The Reconstruction of Italian-American Male Identity in Anthony Valerio's Conversation with Johnny and Robert Viscusi's Astoria

By Guida, George | MELUS, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Novel Paesans: The Reconstruction of Italian-American Male Identity in Anthony Valerio's Conversation with Johnny and Robert Viscusi's Astoria


Guida, George, MELUS


Do we need to rehabilitate the paesan?

What I mean is, do we need to reconstruct the public identity of the Italian-American man? If we survey the great cocktail party of the American literary scene, we recognize in the crowd the faces of many Italian-American men: among the writers of fiction, Don DeLillo; among the poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti; among the scholars, Frank Lentricchia; among the editors, Jonathan Galassi; even among the captains of our literary industry, Leonard Riggio, President of Barnes and Noble. Watching these distinguished gentlemen operate, we feel certain that the old stereotypes of Italian-American men as mafiosi, brutes, sexual predators, or idiots are behind us. But then, at the same party, we overhear Italian-American intellectuals lament or even glorify these same stereotypes, discuss their presence in movies and television shows that we all know (and maybe secretly admire), and we begin to wonder.

A few years ago, John Gotti, from jail, was making the cover of Time magazine. Much to the chagrin of Italian-American critics, Spike Lee's Jungle Fever was exploiting the public preconception of a mythic Italian-American male "penchant for violence, and sexist relations with women" (Viscusi, qtd. in Verdicchio 187); around the same time, the cast of Saturday Night Live played a running sketch in which a pair of lecherous waiters with hokey Italian accents assaulted female patrons of their restaurant (usually guest hosts of the show) with unwanted amorous attention, calling them "Bellissima!", until they finally forced them into sexually compromising positions. And then, of course, we have the work of Mario Puzo. The Godfather continues to be read and seen by millions, having enjoyed a 1997 re-release in theaters and on video as part of The Godfather trilogy, as well as a ubiquity on cable and satellite television networks. Not to mention his best-selling 1996 novel and 1997 hit Mafia miniseries The Last Don, which, according to network promos for its sequel, The Last Don II, "captivated over fifty-two million viewers."

Wide-release films, syndicated television shows, video rentals, and cable television help to perpetuate negative Italian-American stereotypes. Among the creatures of film, syndication, and video who will not die are The Fonz of "Happy Days," a macho Latin-lover type; Tony Manero of Saturday Night Fever, a less intelligent Latin-lover type; Rocky Balboa, a brute; and Puzo's cast of colorful mafiosi. In 1984, Rudolph Vecoli cited a study of the images of Italian-Americans presented on television, which concluded that the public was treated to twice as many negative portrayals as positive ones, and that "one out of six [Italian-American characters] was engaged in criminal activities, most held low status jobs, and the majority did not speak English correctly" (53). Although shows such as HBO's The Sopranos, conceived with a great deal of cultural savoir-faire by the pseudonymous Italian-American David Chase, have arguably complicated existing stereotypes, many shows and films (The Godson, Mafia!, any show starring Tony Danza) have simply perpetuated them.

Whatever we may think of the above-mentioned characters as models for emulation, great numbers of Italian-American men have found sources of identity in the stereotypes that films like Saturday Night Fever and The Godfather promulgate. Vecoli rightly claims that although some Italian-Americans responded to The Godfather and its sequels by protesting and picketing the films, many took them as "the Italian-American equivalent of Alex Haley's Roots" (55). Vecoli also, importantly, recognizes that such "self-caricature and self-denigration" result from the lack of awareness of cultural material for the construction of positive Italian-American identities (55). To this point at least, Italian-American artists and intellectuals have done little to mine for their fellow Italian-Americans the cultural marble trapped inside a mountain of negative images. …

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