Unto the Sons

Breathes there a second-generation American child with a soul so strong that he has never been ashamed of his father? Judging by the spate of recent books by penitent sons and daughters seeking their ancestral roots, apparently not. Add to the list Gay Talese’s Unto the Sons, the story of a tailor who immigrated to the U.S. from a village south of Naples in 1920, married a fellow immigrant’s daughter, and took her to Ocean City on the New Jersey shore.

With the outbreak of World War II, Joseph Talese felt compelled to conceal from his customers and neighbors the sorrow he felt for his native land. Having two brothers in the Italian infantry and an aged mother living in the path of the Allied invasion left him with an ambivalence that filled his American-born son with shame. ”There were many times,” writes Talese, ”when I wished that I had been born into a different family, a plain and simple family of impeccable American credentials — a no-secrets, nonwhispering, no-enemy-soldiers family that never received mail from POW camps, or prayed to a painting of an ugly monk, or ate Italian bread with pungent cheese.”

Hence Unto the Sons, a sprawling, convoluted, fanatically detailed, near- epic saga of four generations of Talese’s family in Italy and the U.S. By the standards of his celebrated histories of the celebrated — he is the author of The Kingdom and the Power, a gossipy 1969 history of The New York Times, and Honor Thy Father, a 1971 book about the mob — none of his relatives has ever done anything particularly newsworthy. Indeed, it’s their very obscurity amid the sweep of 19th- and 20th-century European and American history that gives this extraordinarily likable, if extraordinarily wordy book its charm.

As a storyteller, Talese can no more resist a digression than he can avoid dropping a famous name. From Joe DiMaggio to Arturo Toscanini, Lucky Luciano to Mario Cuomo, every well-known Italian-American whose life touches ever so tangentially upon the lives of his own ancestors gets pulled into the centrifuge of his narrative. If a great uncle goes to work in a Pennsylvania asbestos factory, Talese wants to supply the geological and commercial history of the mineral — not to mention the saga of Dr. Richard Mattison, the eccentric factory co-owner who recruited thousands of workers from southern Italy to help make him rich. And that of Mattison’s ancestors and descendants, too. While readers are sure to lose patience now and then, part of the fun is to see how elaborately Talese can embroider his tale, without, so to speak, dropping a stitch.

If certain scenes are also likely to seem more imaginative than documentary, a gift for storytelling evidently runs in the Talese family. The author’s father stuffed his young head with dramatically rendered biographies of Italian heroes such as Garibaldi, while the vivid diaries of his cousin Antonio Cristiani wonderfully complement Talese’s own descriptions of the terrible World War I battles in which the reluctant draftee took part. You don’t even have to be Italian. A-

Unto the Sons
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