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The Patch Boys by Jay Parini (Holt: $15.95; 218 pp.)

October 19, 1986| Lewis Stone | Stone is a free-lance writer and critic living in Newport, R.I. and

The easy rhythms and harsh reality of "patch" towns where coal was king. People with names like Will, Bing, Jesse, Lucey, and "The Nipper." Boys sneaking puffs of Fatima cigarettes while gazing in rapture at passing Pierce-Arrow automobiles. Purple twilight in a tent along the banks of the Susquehanna. Idle talk of Babe Ruth and Roger "The Rajah" Hornsby. Fields and woods shimmering in heat while far below in the black bowels of the earth, men labor and die. A young boy with inordinate common sense growing to manhood in Pennsylvania mining country during the summer of 1925.

Jay Parini, who grew up in Scranton, Penn., and is the author of a previous novel and two works of poetry, including the critically acclaimed "Anthracite County," has, in "The Patch Boys," come up with a dazzling change of pace and a beguiling piece of fiction. This is not the standard "us" versus "them" sage of grim labor troubles. This novel is about the life, escapades and often humorous recollections of Sammy diCantini, a 15-year-old trying to make some sense out of life.

"The Patch Boys" sets its satire and sardonic wit among the poignant comings and goings of an Italian family ensconced in a large house in Luzerne, Penn.

"Mama" diCantini runs a speak-easy in the cellar on Friday and Saturday nights to make money for her family now that her husband has been killed in the mines. Her eldest son, Vincenzo, has given up a promising baseball career to become a union organizer. Another son, Louis, lives in New York City and has taken up loan-sharking and political work (in his eyes the two are interchangeable). Sammy, the one DiCantini with aspirations for a college education and eventually a career as a lawyer, falls in love above his station, and thereon hangs much of the tale.

To our senses, Parini brings the sights, smells and visages of the "patches"--the clusters of housing built near the gaping open maw of the mines that both take life and sustain it. To our minds, he opens the hearts of the miners, afraid as they are to notice the beauty of the day because they awake in the darkness, labor in darkness and return in darkness to their homes.

Above all, however, this is Sammy diCantini's personal diary. We chuckle to ourselves as he describes a girl's acne-splotched face; "it seemed to fizz and pop when she got excited . . . "; hence the nickname " . . . the carbonated woman." Our stomachs sympathize with Sammy as he describes the salami, fried onions and pepper special at a local diner, a special that ". . . reminded you of its specialness the whole rest of the day."

These are the portraits and vignettes of a bygone era when "bare-ass" was the only way for a boy to swim; when bootlegging was a semi-honorable profession; when old Italian ladies dressed in black all the time so as to be ready at a moment's notice for a funeral; and when the warning whistle of the mine was a constant reminder of death and grieving.

Parini relates Sammy's reminiscences in a down-home first-person idiom that clings to the memory as coal dust to a miner's overalls. With engaging simplicity, he lets events unfold against a backdrop of labor meetings, country baseball games played on old slag heaps, the smells and effects of "still" home brew, the taste of fried bullheads and the excitement of secret trysts at the swimmin' hole.

The Pierce-Arrow, Ruth, Hornsby, Fatima cigarettes are gone. Even the mines are all but gone. But Parini brings them back for us in an endearing novel of the madness, lunacy and common sense of a boy's rite of passage, one summer long ago.

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