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Lives intersect and circle back

The End A Novel Salvatore Scibona Graywolf Press: 300 pp., $24

November 23, 2008

Salvatore Scibona's debut novel, "The End," is set in an exquisitely rendered Italian immigrant community in early 20th century Ohio and does not open up so much as catch and slowly reel in. It opens on Assumption Day, 1953; baker Rocco LaGrassa, "a soul liberated from worry by luck and self-conquest," learns his son has died in Korea. He denies the death, insisting that the young man will return home soon, but his rigorous self-deception loosens his carefully held discipline. For the first time in years, Rocco's solitary routine is disturbed.

Rocco accepts an invitation to dine that same night with an aloof neighbor, Mrs. Marini, and it is through her that the story begins to swirl toward its vortex as it veers across time. Widowed and elderly, Mrs. Marini is helped out around the house by Ciccio, a teenage boy.

The episodic narrative cycles back in time, bringing alive the relationships that connect Mrs. Marini to Ciccio: She is friends with his grandmother Patrizia, she has been a mentor of sorts to his mother, Lina. These ties connect to men too: Umberto, Patrizia's husband, and Lina's husband, Enzo, for whom Mrs. Marini develops a genuine fondness.

Mrs. Marini's affections are hard to come by; having outlived her husband by decades, she maintains a vicious inner dialogue with his imagined, constantly critical ghost; her harsh judgments of others are kind by comparison. But as central as she is, and as difficult, Costanza Marini is not the story's antagonist: That comes in the form of a stranger who appears in two chapters titled "The Forest Runner."

The book focuses on these characters' points of intersection. Teenage Ciccio thinks that "distant events have thrown us into long, elliptical, cometlike orbits, far from our origins, and eventually we will circle back on people whose lives preceded and gave rise to our own." Slowly, a centripetal force builds, drawing together many threads: Ciccio's youth; Lina, single and married; Umberto and Patrizia's farm; Mrs. Marini's affluence.

As deliberately constructed a fiction as "The End" is, it also dabbles in metafiction, making clear, in the text, how it should be read. The quote above is Ciccio's musing on the 19th century death of Lafayette, but it's so instructive that it appears on the inside jacket flap. Lina, who leaves the narrative at one point only to reappear, addresses the reader: "You want a why. But there is no why. . . . I want to be a line that extends and ravels and at length intersects itself again, a path that can be retraced stepwise, but I am not, I am discontinuous."

The title itself points overtly to the novel's heart: The final chapters carry more than their share of emotional heft. But to set the heart of a book at its end leaves the beginning hollow. Rocco is connected to Christian allegory -- Job and Peter, for starters -- but his deliberate unknowingness makes this part of the text harder going than what follows. What's more, he's only tangentially connected to Mrs. Marini and her deeper affections and failures.

"The End" earned a National Book Award nomination, an impressive feat for a first novel. Its careful plotting and graceful language certainly show it to be a work of exquisite control. But its first 65 pages may be hiding its light under a bushel.

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