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The twenty-three stories in Lost Hearts comprise a rich and candid account of growing up and growing old in Sicily and America. The stories may be read separately, but they are also linked. Original Sin, the opening story set in rural Sicily in 1900, pushes a father-son conflict to its tragic conclusion. The protagonist, Peter Marino, emigrates to America, where his descendants — and especially his grandson, Charlie — experience the conflicts, hopes, and needs that add up to the human condition.
In the Italian-American world of Lost Hearts, a short-story collection by Marlboro writer Vincent Panella, one character literally towers over the rest: Aunt Gina in “The Orchid Room.” “Eat!” she commands the school-aged narrator and his cousins at the breakfast table as she stands over them wielding a wooden spoon. When the youngest, Anthony, a “showoff,” pushes his mother too far, Aunt Gina beats his head until the spoon breaks.
“Anthony rubs himself where she struck and finds blood on his fingers,” Panella writes. “‘You struck oil, Ma,’ he says.”
In a spare, Hemingway-esque style, Lost Hearts depicts the lives of lower-middle-class Italian families living in Queens and Brooklyn: men who work seven days a week as bar owners, abandoned but fiercely strong wives, cousins with unacknowledged connections to the mob. Though pervaded by violence, adultery and painful compromises, it’s a world Panella knew intimately and wants to preserve.
“This is a book that’s very close to me. All the stories are intensely felt,” he says, adding that he worked on them for 10 years.
Panella was born in 1939 in Manhattan and grew up in Queens. His grandparents came from Sicily and the Naples area in the early 1900s, and both grandfathers worked on the railroads. All this is recorded in his 1979 memoir The Other Side: Growing Up Italian in America, published by Doubleday. But he admits Lost Hearts draws so intensely from those memories that it could be called “an exaggerated or invented memoir.”
The stories follow a loose chronology, from “Original Sin,” set in Sicily during the land-reform movement of the late 1800s, to the closing story, “War and Peace,” a touching and undisguised glimpse of Panella’s elderly mother. Many of them are linked through the central character of Charlie Marino, a writer who, in “Chicken Feet,” “fail[s] to sell one story, or even to place one in a nonpaying literary magazine.”
It’s a familiar scenario among short-story writers — even one who, like Panella, attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has already been published by the likes of Doubleday. (Panella also wrote a historical novel, Cutter’s Island, published in 2000 by Academy Chicago and reviewed in Seven Days.) “Stories are difficult to sell if you’re not a famous author,” he says.
So, Panella self-published to put Lost Hearts into the public’s hands. He created his own imprint, Apollo’s Bow, and contracted with BookLocker, one of a proliferating number of print-on-demand self-publishing companies. The whole operation cost about $4000, he says, a figure that includes hiring a locally based graphic designer to come up with the book’s look and mailing out review copies. He saved money by choosing a cover photo that was already in the public domain: a hauntingly empty black-and-white of the old Manhattan El by Berenice Abbott. Two photos of Panella’s young parents, to whom he dedicated his book, appear on the first and last pages.
His efforts have already paid off: Barnes & Noble is selling copies in 25 East Coast stores, including South Burlington’s, Panella says. Lost Hearts is also available as a Kindle or Nook download. Panella considered reissuing his memoir as an e-book, too, but found when he called Doubleday that they would be doing that instead. “The publishing industry is really behind the times,” Panella declares. “Even though that book isn’t a big seller, they don’t want to give up control.” According to copyright law, Doubleday owns the book “until 70 years after I go to heaven.”
Though Panella moved to Vermont in 1976 and taught writing at Vermont Law School until he retired six years ago, his Italian-American past still looms as large as Aunt Gina. “There are certain things you grind away at as a writer, that you can’t let go,” he says. “You write because you don’t want things to die, even though they were painful. If you’re a writer, you can bring them back.”
- Amy Lilly, Seven Days
Sicily is a land of forbidden romances, concealed vendettas and dangerous rivalries, one in which sets son against father; the first of many tales that bring to life Vincent Panella's "Lost Hearts."
Each chapter a story, the book is an adventure of growing and living in America, of Italian Americans fighting, rising, falling, and loving. The first story "Original Sin," displays the enmity between protagonist Peter and his father in 1900 Sicily. Peter begins manhood as class warfare abounds. Panella writes of the "landless men, men who worked the land for small shares. They were stoop-backed, grizzled men in dark caps, heavy boots and shapeless trousers…waiting for a signal to occupy the nearby field and farm it for themselves, if only symbolically until police or overseers drove them off."
The story is both tragic and redeemable as we see the cycle of Italian migration from the Old World to the New and back again, where love triumphs over evil. When Peter returns to Sicily after a 50 year absence, he reignites a romance with the girl he left. Panella describes the feelings of warmth and passion that the character experiences. "The pull of his heart was a like a fish tugging. Love hurled his accumulation of days into the valley, living young and tender and vulnerable."
Stories that follow take place mostly in Queens and Brooklyn. Second generation Italian Americans are a thousand miles away from Sicily but not much different than their ancestors' Old World. They too group themselves in gangs, take and defend turf against rivals. Panella writes in the second story, that bears the book's title "Lost Hearts," about a group of teenage friends who gather together to decide "'Who do we beat up first?' A long discussion ensued. Red Wall – later to become a psychotherapist – produced a list of three names, all older boys. One had bloodied Bobby's nose in a stickball dispute. Another had repeatedly thrown them off the handball court…his name was Leon. The vote was unanimous for Leon."
A former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, Panella has the gift of modern prose, sensible and direct language, of stories that are personal, honest and heartfelt reflections of his life as an Italian American in postwar America. "Lost Hearts" is a book that will find the reader wanting to step back in time, side-by-side with Panella's characters, men and women that endear and repel us, that remind us of what it is to be an Italian American. A fine collection of tales, written to the point of perfection by a true Italian American, proud of his roots, warts and all, "Lost Hearts" calls to be included in every Italian American's library.
– PRIMO Magazine, Volume 11, Issue #3
"A powerfully written suite of linked stories follows one family from an old-country Sicilian village to an Italian neighborhood in Queens. Former Newburgh resident Panella gets the period details and voices pitch-perfect. In one of his pithiest stories, "Long Sugar," a scrappy diabetic faces mortality in a room stripped of everything but a few family photos and the echo of a train."
– Chronogram Magazine March 1, 2011
Like pieces of a puzzle these stories long and short come together to give us a sense of baby boomer Charlie Marino's cycle of life — as a child, teen, young — and aging adult. With grit and not without some joy, Panella renders old country and city life in telling detail that captures life yesterday and today. In many ways, these stories belong to all who came of age in the 1950s and 60s, those of us with immigrant roots, who made our own ways and now are helping our parents out as we usher grandchildren in. Whether in the old country, the old neighborhood, or the suburban oasis, the reader is always at home and on edge simply because we are in the presence of a master storyteller.
– Fred Gardaphe Distinguished Professor of English, Queens College, and Author of From Wiseguys to Wise Men
Read Five-Part Blues, a story from Lost Hearts.