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BOOK REVIEW

'As God Commands' by Niccolò Ammaniti

The hard-boiled Italian crime novel involving a robbery plan hatched out of underclass desperation is as gritty as it is suspenseful.

November 23, 2009|By Regina Marler

When it comes to crime novels, the word "grit" suggests both authenticity and earthiness -- rude language, rough humor, animality, graphic details. It's the intrusion of the body -- physical reality -- into an otherwise cerebral exercise. Grit is what reminds us that our salad grew out of the mud.

"Grit" is the perfect word to describe Niccolò Ammaniti's "As God Commands," set among the out-of-work underclass of the otherwise affluent Italian village of Varrano. The novel tells the story of Rino Zena, an unemployed alcoholic skinhead with a Nazi flag on his bedroom wall.

His redeeming trait is his love for his 13-year-old son, Cristiano, whom he raises with a combination of anti-immigrant rants, rough affection and his fists. They live alone together in an industrial section of the town, and pal around with Rino's grappa-addicted friend Danilo -- whose big dream is to rob the ATM machine and win back his ex-wife -- and his childhood buddy Quattro Formaggi, the "town idiot" whom Rino both protects and abuses. As the novel opens, Rino is drunkenly waking Cristiano to force him out into the snow at night. A nearby watchdog keeps barking and Rino insists that his son go shoot it. Since the silencing of the dog is not the sort of assignment Cristiano can fake, he dutifully completes his mission.

Some readers will put down the book at this point. It's not that Ammaniti's vision doesn't feel genuine. In fact, it's all too easy to believe in this harsh town and these dangerous, wounded men. But the bleakness of his fictional world makes us hesitate to enter further. Parentally ordered dog murder? On Page 16? This is grit that could put your eye out.

Although the shocks escalate, gore-spattered readers who persevere into the next few chapters will probably be won over by Ammaniti's immense gifts for pacing, psychological clarity and singular detail. His steely, quick-moving prose (translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt) suits his unsavory material -- he's in and out like a knife thrust.

When he does resort to imagery, it feels effortless. On the night that changes all their lives, Quattro Formaggi witnesses Rino in the throes of a brain hemorrhage:

"Quattro Formaggi saw Rino writhing about and struggling against an invisible force that had caught him and was trying to carry him away. Rino waved his legs and arms and rolled his eyes, and his back arched like a bow; he twisted his mouth and shook his head, and the light on his forehead crazily slashed the woods with a thousand golden blades."

While Rino and the soused sad-sack Danilo are skillfully drawn, they are recognizable genre characters. It's the two on the poles of normalcy -- uncertain tough-guy Cristiano and loopy Quattro Formaggi -- who surprise us.

And while there's no question of whodunit in this thriller, the suspense about who will be blamed, and who will suffer most, keeps us riveted. Shifts of focus between the ATM robbery plans and a subplot involving a loathed social worker only serve to crank up the tension.

Ammaniti's novels are wildly popular in Europe, part of what some have called a golden age of Italian crime fiction. (Aficionados may recall Giancarlo De Cataldo's 2008 anthology, "Crimini: The Bitter Lemon Book of Italian Crime Fiction," which includes a story co-written by Ammaniti.) "As God Commands" won Italy's most prestigious literary award, the Strega Prize, and was made into a film by Gabriele Salvatores, who also filmed Ammaniti's earlier novel "I'm Not Scared."

Although never cartoonish or self-consciously noir, "As God Commands" does feel highly cinematic -- not only in its relentless action but its stylistic spareness, which leaves room for interpretation.

At his best, Ammaniti is also capable of a faint macabre humor that suggests untapped powers. One character, for example, while struggling to hang himself, discovers a black-and-white plastic cow stuck to the bottom of his foot.

Ammaniti loves to carry his themes through animals -- the shot dog, lost pets, crushed cows, casual cruelty in a fish tank. In a literary season full of angels, watch Ammaniti, who aligns us with the beasts.

Marler is author of the literary history "Bloomsbury Pie" and is now at work on a novel.

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