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Reviewed by:
  • Queen Calafia's Paradise: California and the Italian American Novel
  • Charles Scruggs
Queen Calafia's Paradise: California and the Italian American Novel. By Kenneth Scambray. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007. 211 pages, $46.50.

In this excellent study, Scambray argues that his subject is not the Italian American novel but the Italian American novel in California, and therein lies its real distinction. The characters in this fiction negotiate an American identity against a western landscape, and hence the stereotypical portrait of the Italian American as eastern, urban, poor, and criminal has little relevance to a fiction that treats a new kind of immigrant experience. Moreover, this fiction does not express the kind of dystopic view of California as reflected in the works of Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler, or Horace McCoy. Rather, the Italian American novel in California offers its characters an opportunity for renewal and a new perspective upon the definition of an American identity. The journey that they make in this fiction is neither a success story nor a simple linear narrative. Because of the absence of restrictive, spatial boundaries, that journey is often arbitrary, unpredictable, even circular. As in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), a character in a Californian, Italian American novel might meet his or her several past selves, coming and going, along a journey toward selfhood that remains forever problematic in a mercurial world.

Scambray discusses eleven novels in all, and a consistent theme is that characters are often forced to reroute their plans as the past erupts into the present. This is the spin that Scambray gives to the Queen Calafia myth as described by a sixteenth-century Spanish narrative in which a mythical island paradise also contains voracious griffins who devour human beings, a variation, one might say, of et in arcadia ego. Thus, Anna Giardino in Dorothy Bryant's Miss Giardino (1978) escapes the prison of her ethnic past through education only to find that she has alienated herself from the diversity of ethnic identities surrounding her. So too Vincent Torno in Steven Varni's The Inland Sea (2000) finds that he lives in a world of palimpsests, that he will have to define and redefine his identity many times, never completely forsaking the Old World that lies in wait for him as Tar Baby does for Brer Rabbit. Like Ellison's narrator, the more Vincent runs from his past, the more he encounters it. [End Page 217]

Scambray ends his book with an examination of John Fante, perhaps the best known of the writers discussed. He is especially perceptive in his critique of Fante's greatly admired Ask the Dust (1939). Camilla Lopez (Mexican) and Vera Rivken (Jewish), Scambray notes, are doppelgangers for Arturo Bandini's Italian American self, one he is trying to shed by becoming an American author. But he can't shed that self no matter how hard he tries. Arturo must write about Vera and Fante about Camilla because these two women represent an authenticity and vitality that is essential to the fiction of both authors. Arturo's enduring attachment to Camilla is an unconscious acknowledgment of his own past and its inescapable claims upon him. Scambray has written an important book, one that adds to the exciting, burgeoning scholarship on California's authors.

Charles Scruggs
University of Arizona, Tucson


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pp. 217-218
Launched on MUSE
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