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The Boys of Bensonhurst by Salvatore La Puma (University of Georgia: $13.95; 136 pp.)

April 26, 1987|William Hochswender | Hochswender, the features editor of Harper's Bazaar, is from Flatbush

The Dodgers may be irretrievable, but Brooklyn itself is back--in the plays of Neil Simon, in the films of Woody Allen and now in this collection of stories, "The Boys of Bensonhurst," by Salvatore La Puma.

Although television has forever fixed the area in popular myth as "Honeymooner" territory, Bensonhurst was and is primarily an Italian section. To this day, its neighborhoods are so tightly knit that an outsider cannot walk down the street without being noticed. In the 1940s setting of this volume, tomatoes and basil grow in backyards, boys actually want to go to war, girls like being treated as dames, and dogs understand only Sicilian (they consider English "cat talk").

The "boys" in La Puma's cast--we'd call them "home boys" today--have names like Vito and Guido, Frankie and Tony. Most of them seem headed for prison or the seminary, with time out for a little heavy petting along the way.

Ernesto, for example, is slow in school: "His hands, though, had an intelligence of their own, as untaught, he rebuilt gummy carburetors, a dying toaster, staticky radios, and for $25 from Louis Perrino, disconnected the alarm at Morrie's Watches without getting an electric shock."

Frankie is afraid to go off and kill Nazis and Japs but undaunted by the prospect of sleeping with the mistress of Bruno the gangster. This leads to some wild sex and an even wilder wake--his own.

Guido doesn't believe in going to church--"God's just the plaster statue by the altar"--until he's driven to take a life. Then he becomes a killer with "the calling," and enters a seminary.

Some characters, like slick Tony Tempesta, the counterfeit olive oil manufacturer, reappear throughout the book, threading the stories together, as the boys are torn between Mafia and Church, war and women. (The girls, it should be said, are as beautifully drawn as the boys.)

La Puma has his eye on the big stuff: birth, death, copulation; but he also has a fine sense of the many little things that have been lost from our lives: novenas, burlesque, trolleys, chastity. And he accomplishes a lot through simple storytelling. In this way, "The Boys of Bensonhurst" resembles the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It has that kind of fragrance and ferocity. Like Macondo, that fabulous borough of the imagination, Bensonhurst is a hermetic world, a place apart, bursting with tropic passions and vice, peopled with characters familiar and unreal, where all the realities of actual existence are there but somehow magnified for effect.

There is virtue in simplicity, and La Puma has managed his effects to produce haunting images of a time and place--a slender tour de force.

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