Here are two breezy, readable novels about Sicilian immigrants who come to America in the late 19th century, become big-time bankers, get rich and found dynasties populated by a variety of types, including -- in both cases -- a priest, a senator, a lush and a woman of great drive.
Richard Gambino's "Bread and Roses" is set mainly in San Francisco and follows the Trinacria family through three generations in 46 years (1890-1936). Fred Mustard Stewart's "Century" is set mainly in New York and follows the Dexter (born Spada) family through five generations in 101 years (1859-1960).
Both books, in the grand tradition of the family saga, involve their fictional characters in real-life events. "Bread and Roses" treats readers to the San Francisco earthquake; the bloody Lawrence, Mass., mill strike; World War I; and the stock market crash. In one juicy scene, the daughter-in-law of the founding father dies after a passionate bout with a sex fiend who bears a striking resemblance to Fatty Arbuckle. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Benito Mussolini put in appearances in less seamy roles. "Century," a more ambitious book -- and about 25 percent longer -- also features World War I, the Crash and Mussolini. Pop Pius XII does a cameo as a money-grubbing, collaborating prelate. And this time, it's the son-in-law of the founding father who dies grotesquely, bayonetted and buried alive by sadistic Japanese during the Bataan Death March in 1942.
I was excited about reading both these books because I thought they would throw some light on the question of why Italian immigrants have been so successful in America. Most of them came here penniless, suffered discrimination and, in some cases, vicious attacks at the hands of the native-born (including the worst mass lynching in American history). Yet they managed, often within a single generation, to thrive as businessmen, craftsmen and artists. Today, Italian-Americans have a far higher per-capita income than WASPs. How did they do it?
Unfortunately, neither Gambino nor Stewart seems very interested in the question. For both their heroes, the climb to wealth and power is relatively easy.
In "Century," Victor Dexter (the former Vittorio Spada) gets rich mostly because he inherits his stepfather's bank. (And his stepfather is not Italian but a native-born Anglo who starts the bank after finding a cache of jewels during the Civil War.) Victor's family stays rich through marriage and inheritance. Only the granddaughter, Gabriella, shows any entrepreneurial spirit -- perhaps because she starts off an orphan and broke.
In " Bread and Roses," Danilo Trinacria does a little struggling -- but not too much. He rises swiftly from laborer to crabber to banker. One of his sons starts a steamship company (using daddy's line of credit); the other son becomes a priest. One daughter marries a drunken vintner and writes passable poetry; the other becomes a rabble-rouser, moonlighting from her studies at Wellesley to lead a mill strike.
In both books, we get fleeting confirmation that George Gilder is right, that wealth is built on work, family and faith in the future. We get a brief glimpse of immigrant camaraderie -- the spirit that helped Trinacria get his bank started on the deposits of San Francisco fishermen. And we get the idea that the Sicilian tradition of vendetta, of getting even, was an important business tool in the early 20th century.
But there's little tension in either book -- not much to draw fellow Italians, or even fellow family members, together. After they become rich, Victor and Danilo become boring; the excitement of work disappears. Neither author gives us an inkling of how a bank functions, how it makes profits or loses money. There is a brief, but wholly unbelievable, passage in "Century" about a deposit run on his bank that Dexter manufactures in order to force down the price of the stock. But that's all. If Gambino and Stewart find banking so dull, they should have made their heroes insurance executives of plumbers.
But, despite his failures with banking, Stewart has produced a lively book -- "Century" is terrific reading. Subplots include Mafia killings, the rise of a Jewish movie mogul, the life of a radical journalist (Franco, Victor's brother, who stays in Italy) married to a princess, a pre-Pearl Harbor spy caper in Mexico and the triumph of a dress designer.
Stewart has a talent for writing sparely, for jamming in facts and feelings without giving readers the impression that he's skipping along from one melodrama to another -- which, of course, is exactly what he's doing. Stewart, who has written seven novels before this, including "The Mephisto Waltz" and "A Rage Against Heaven," is a craftsman. He has the family saga down pat.
Gambino, unfortunately, does not. Direcor of Italian-American studies at Queens College, he probably knows as much as anyone in this country about Sicilian immigrants. And he writes history exceedingly well. He proved it with "Vendetta," a volume on the mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans. This is Gambino's first novel, and the skipping and the melodrama are just too obvious. As soon as a character appears on the scene, we can guess how Gambino will use him. The opera diva on tour will obviously become the banker's mistress. The tough nephew will grow up to be a gangster.
But, worst of all, Gambino gets enthralled with Danilo's daughter. Vittoria, a character I found just plain annoying. He puts Danilo and the bank out to pasture and spends pages and pages on Vittoria's antics during the mill strike.
With both books, the reader longs for depth -- for well-turned phrases, even for quirks (Stewart, at least, has one obsession: vomiting). But both books are entertaining and modestly educational, fine for the beach.