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A pie in the face

Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! A Novel Mark Binelli Dalkey Archive Press: 360 pp., $14.95 paper

July 23, 2006|Mark S. Luce | Mark S. Luce lives in Kansas City, Mo., where he teaches at the Barstow School.

ONE of the first appearances of comedy team Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy was in producer Hal Roach's 1927 silent short "The Battle of the Century," in which Laurel plays a wisp of a boxer whose crooked manager (Hardy) tries to collect on an insurance policy by making the fighter slip on a banana peel. Instead, a pie man loses his wares after tumbling on the peel, storms up to the bulky Hardy and drills him in the kisser with a pie. Chaos ensues, with a city block engaging in cinema's creamiest pie fight.

But the affaire de tarte may have been even richer. Unfortunately, the film doesn't exist in its original form, for much of it has been lost. The donnybrook we see today consists of editing by Robert Youngson, specifically for his 1957 compilation tribute to silent film stars, "The Golden Age of Comedy." Youngson, thankfully, saved the pie fight, but he also trimmed the scene by half, got rid of the title cards and juggled the sequence of events, leaving us to wonder what we're missing.

Mark Binelli considers what history might have missed in his hysterically funny first novel, "Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!" Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried, convicted and executed for the 1920 murders of two men during a payroll robbery in South Braintree, Mass. The pair's case generated worldwide attention and fostered impassioned debate, with many arguing that the avowed anarchists were nothing but victims of a politically motivated prosecution. Instead of trotting out the infamous executionees for political grandstanding, Binelli re-imagines the duo as slapstick comedians a la Stan and Ollie. His slim, straight-man Bart and fat, gag-prone Nic rise from, respectively, an eel monger and shoe-edge maker to become international film stars with a pointed calling card: knife-throwing routines as dangerous as they are balletic.

The conceit -- with its attendant "edge" and "blade" metaphors -- works extremely well, not only as an entertaining exercise in alternative history but also as a contemplation of comedy, ethnic definition and friendship. Binelli's pair inhabit the muddy borders between Italian and American, fiction and invention, and laughter and despair as they traverse 50 years of successes and slips.

Binelli balances his protagonists with aplomb, nimbly playing them off each other. The novel's purposely disjunctive structure complements Binelli's robust sense of history; we catch small glimpses of the real Sacco and Vanzetti in the book's funhouse mix of made-up fictional newsreels, movie magazine interviews and historical interludes, as well as snippets from faked scholarly books, Bart's private diaries and Nic's unfinished gag guide. Binelli ties together these disparate sources with scenes culled from the vaudeville duo's movies, which often play as set pieces that explore the men's interior development. The results can be as dizzying as a Mack Sennett Keystone comedy, but the book's rollicking pace and even its touching moments and deeper implications -- how do we really know anyone? -- find ample breathing room in Binelli's shimmery postmodern stylings.

In tracing the comic pair's rise and subsequent fall (they are sued by a former neighbor for stealing his knife routine), Binelli whizzes through real-life characters with ease, be it a plucky Bob Hope, heavyweight champ Primo Carnera or pretty boy Italo Balbo, Mussolini's aviation minister. Gags, too, come rapid-fire. Nic and Bart narrowly escape a pie fight they start at an art unveiling, and they wage a massive shoe warehouse battle. Zany incidents dominate the novel, with the pair befriending ventriloquists, making fun of Helen Keller and harassing a man wearing a beard of bees.

One of the book's most amusing scenes casts the pair as pallbearers at Rudolph Valentino's funeral. As they mill around the open casket with Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, the men traffic in inappropriate (and wildly droll) rigor mortis jokes before Chaplin is forced to trip a crazed funeral interloper with his trademark cane.

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