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Book Review: Fists by Pietro Grossi

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First published in Italian in 2006, Pietro Grossi's collection of three short stories, Fists, is now available in an English translation by Howard Curtis. And if these stories are any indication of Grossi's talent, the translation comes much too late. His prose has the deceptive simplicity of a Hemingway overlaid with the tantalizing ambiguity of a writer like Paul Auster. It is the kind of writing that sneaks up on the reader and leaves him with the sense that he has come into contact with something extraordinary. Grossi's subjects are the events that change lives, the kinds of charged experiences that James Joyce found led to epiphanies.

"Boxing," the first of the stories, describes the great match of two young fighters' lives. The narrator, a self identified nerdy momma's boy who has built himself into an almost mythical fighter despite the fact that he has never actually fought a bout, is finally challenged by a deaf-mute bull of a battler who has heard of his reputation. On the one hand, it is a fight that teaches both boxers something about life, something about what it means to be a man. On the other hand, it is a fight that demonstrates that myth need not be destroyed by stubborn reality.

The narrator is known as the Dancer. He is renowned for his finesse and prowess, but it is prowess that has never been tested. His opponent is the Goat. He plugs away at his craft with the dogged obstinacy of his namesake, but more importantly, he has been proven in the ring. For the spectators, the Dancer tells us, the match was a chance to see "the stuff of legends." "They had come there to see if it was really worth telling the stories and believing in them or if, once again, as usually happened, reality would destroy the myth…." It was to be a "battle between dream and reality, between the world as it was and the way we would like it to be."

In "Horses," a father buys his two sons, boys who are at first characterized by stealing drinks from an old woman, each a horse and, in doing so, changes their lives. Although neither wanted the animals at first, they both work at training them, and for one the training becomes a passion, while for the other, it is merely an inconsequential chore to be gotten through before going on to more exciting things. For one brother the city beckons: women, fighting, drugs perhaps. For the other, there is the country and more horses and a life with honor. The story plays an interesting contemporary variation on the city mouse, country mouse theme.

The last story, "The Monkey," is perhaps the least realistic of the three. It concerns a young man who, in the midst of his busy life, is told that an old friend of his has begun to act like a monkey and is asked to come back to his home town to see if he can help him. The friend has been successful in business and life in general, but as the young man thinks back to their last encounter, he remembers that the man seemed dissatisfied, as if he had found his success empty. He returns to his home to find that indeed his friend is behaving like a monkey. "He was naked, crouching beside the bed, playing with a little pile of shells, just like a monkey." The story works as a comment on the banality of modern life.

Fists is the kind of book that not only promises a bright future for a talented writer, it is a book that demonstrates that that future is now. These are the kinds of stories that will be favorably compared with Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, Joyce's Dubliners, and Salinger's Nine Stories. They are the kinds of stories readers will find filling the pages of the short fiction anthologies of the future.

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