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Metalheads vs. Tuscany

Misfits Coming of Age in a Fabled Landscape

PUBLISHED: September 24, 2014


Live Bait
By Fabio Genovesi, translated by Michael Moore.
Other Press, July 2014.
336p. PB, $15.95

If Paolo Sorrentino’s recent Oscar-winning film La Grande Bellezza (“The Great Beauty”) was too much like a postcard of Rome—and out of step with the struggles that real Italians are facing—then Live Bait, a novel by Fabio Genovesi, is like a teenage punk who wields a can of spray paint and tears that postcard in two.

Set in a small, unglamorous town on the outskirts of Pisa, Live Bait, in an English translation by Michael Moore, is an antiestablishment project, one of the relatively few books on the American market in which Tuscany isn’t portrayed as a land of sunsets, artists, and refurbished villas (Agostino, by Alberto Moravia, is another, also translated by Moore). La Grande Bellezza offers up similar tropes, picturing Rome as a lavish playground for tourists and the film’s main character, the pleasure-worshipping novelist Jep Gambardella (played by Toni Servillo). In contrast, Genovesi’s Tuscany is no place for a vacation. Loosely based on the town where Genovesi lives and set his first two novels, Muglione is a stifling Tuscan backwater filled with aging drunks. The surrounding landscape is equally dire. In lieu of sun-kissed hills and medieval towns, one finds “flat empty fields,” “putrid irrigation ditches” where locals come to fish, and the occasional “hooker by the side of the road … in glittering sequins.…” The bleakness of Muglione stands in contrast to the fervent, youthful energy of Genovesi’s characters.

When nineteen-year-old Fiorenzo isn’t working at his father’s bait shop, selling maggots and worms, he’s fishing the irrigation dishes, watching horror flicks, or jamming with his death-metal band, Metal Devastation. He’s also still reeling from his mother’s sudden death, his father’s unraveling, and a grisly accident. In the beginning of the book, Fiorenzo describes how he lit a firecracker and aimed it at one of the ditches, hoping to catch the elusive “monster fish.” He began counting off, but before he could get to ten, the firecracker exploded, taking his right hand with it. Fiorenzo’s phantom limb, and the shame that comes with it, is a proxy for Muglione’s youth, whose prospects are grim at best. There is Tiziana, an intelligent thirty-something, who returns from a stint in Berlin to reform the local youth center, where seniors come to get drunk; and Mirko, a teenage cycling wizard who resentfully shoulders the hopes and dreams of the town. Together with Fiorenzo, these three, and others, struggle to build their futures, while rejecting the mores of their elders. Their intimate, angst-ridden dramas propel what can loosely be called a plot.

On the first page of the book, Fiorenzo makes a declaration that defines the ethos of this novel: “Galileo is a moron. You heard me, Galileo Galilei, who was from Pisa so all the schools around here are named after him.” To Fiorenzo, Galileo is a moron because “in his opinion everything in the world … can be broken down into numbers and geometric figures. What a pile of bullshit. If I said it everyone would tell me to shut the fuck up and they’d be right. Except Galileo said it so it must be true since he was a genius and lived in a time when everyone was a genius or an artist and didn’t waste time at the grocery store, the post office, or the corner bar…” Petulant as it sounds, Fiorenzo’s rant reveals the depths of his disenchantment: When the firecracker exploded, it claimed much more than his hand. It claimed his faith in order and the founding myths of his country.

Live Bait, like the film La Grande Bellezza, begins with a bang. In La Grande Bellezza a cannon fires, and the camera tracks across an outdoor party and a cemetery before fixing itself on a tourist, who, overcome by the beauty of Rome—or its sweltering heat—collapses to the ground. It’s a scene that announces the film’s central conceit: that Jep’s generation, which came of age in the 1960s during Italy’s “economic miracle” and the heyday of Federico Fellini, has traded its dreams for money and pleasure. “The most interesting people in Rome are the tourists,” Jep says, with his typical jaded insouciance. Now cut to Live Bait and a mise-en-scène that consists of M-80s, “nuclear” trench-like ditches, and a vaguely Russian presence (Muglione is compared to the city of Izhevsk, home of the Kalashnikov, and a “Slavic guy” appears, as do a number of Russian names). Fiercely unpicturesque, the scenes in Muglione reject La Dolce Vita and the world that Jep inhabits. As in the neorealist films of the 1940s and ’50s, Fiorenzo and his friends come of age in a place that resembles postwar Europe.

Less a style than an ethic, Italian neorealism espoused local stories, shot in real places: The settings, generally speaking, were bombed-out cities; the focus was working-class families who wrestled with the aftermath of war, destitution, and systemic corruption in domestic, intimate ways. If Fellini was a master of the Baroque, neorealist directors like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini embraced the anti-monumental. In the wake of Fascist cinema, these directors turned to Hemingway’s unadorned prose and James M. Cain’s transgressive noir. Genovesi dips into this neorealist toolbox—the cycling and fishing depicted in Live Bait seem like a shout-out to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Rossellini’s The Earth Trembles—except his countercultural touchstones refer to another lost generation. This lost generation plays in death-metal bands, wears leather, chains, and combat boots, and eats frozen pizzas. “Much, much better are the pieces that go out with a bang … building up and then striking two or three final notes all together, bam, bam, baaam …. Out in a blaze, lights out,” Fiorenzo says, speaking of the distorted guitars featured in his music. “We’re a war machine, a hand grenade tossed into the middle of the crowd…” 

In light of Fiorenzo’s views on Galileo, and a scene in which some Germans come to town (Tiziana, terrified to show them where she’s from, proposes a trip to a trattoria in Florence instead) this “crowd” could symbolize any number of things: the elders of Muglione, neoliberalism, or history itself. If it seems like a stretch to compare contemporary Italy to the war zone it was in 1945, it’s worth considering that the economic meltdown of 2008 threw Italy, and much of southern Europe, into a tailspin from which it has still not recovered. More than 40 percent of Italy’s youth are unemployed. In the last ten years, some 400,000 graduates have left the country in search of work abroad. And then there are those left behind, an experience that Genovesi telescopes into tragic-comic moments: “We’re outrageous, omnipotent…” Fiorenzo says, before the band’s first performance. “All of us except Antonio … The best he could do was a studded belt around his waist … If you were to take a picture right now, we would look like the fiercest band in the world together with a passerby asking us for directions to a discotheque.” He goes on to mock the idea of Italian rock—“the most dreadful pairing of words in the universe” and calls the Sanremo Music Festival, a platform for gauzy, radio pop, a “festering wound infecting the entire country.” 

In his desire to break from the past, and create a kind of new “Italian” sound, Fiorenzo is calling for a cultural revolution. Delivered in first-person, his rebel yell is the heart of the book, though Tiziana and Mirko narrate sections as well, switching into second- and sometimes third-person narrations. This choral effect is disorienting and makes the novel seem unpolished. Yet it also gives the work a raw immediacy: The band may dress like posers, but their howls are truthful and loud enough to rattle the windows. In the end, this is the closest the band ever gets to a coup—that and a half-baked plot against the old drunks at the youth center. When the men announce they are being targeted by a gang of fascist youths, Metal Devastation gamely assumes the role. “Those idiots are fighting against a gang that wants to exterminate the seniors, except that gang doesn’t exist,” a band member reasons. “In other words, there’s a hole in the story, and we’re going to fill that hole.” Posing as fascist rebels—they call themselves the “National Rejuvenation Brigade”—they steal some blood from the tackle shop, hurl it against the youth center’s façade, and add some roadkill for effect. Like the band’s punkish shouts, the attack is a cri de coeur, an assault against an edifice that stands in the way of their future. 

Without meaningful jobs, or the opportunity to emigrate—to speak English without an Italian accent is one of Fiorenzo’s dreams—the “Brigade” is also a bid for political voice. In a country where 20 percent of the population is over sixty-five, it’s a bid that reflects a hopeful spot in Italy and is reflected in current events in Italy. After years of disengagement, young voters are finally turning out. The populist Five Star Movement captured 60 percent of the youth vote in February 2013 and thus immediately became a powerful political party. A year later, Matteo Renzi became Italy’s youngest prime minister ever, at the age of thirty-nine. Since then, the former mayor of Florence, who wears jeans instead of suits, has set forth bold economic reforms and bonded with President Barack Obama. Renzi has been accused of lacking experience, but in the European elections in May his party won nearly 41 percent of the vote, a showing that is better than any Italian political party since 1958. His success is a sign that Italians are ready for change. Countless towns like Muglione, and kids like Fiorenzo, are depending on it.



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