Sgambati, Vince. “Most Precious Blood”, Guernica Editions (Guernica World Editions), 2018.
A Declining Italian-American Neighborhood
Vince Sgambati’s ”Most Precious Blood” is set in a declining Italian-American neighborhood in today’s Queens where loyalties are complex and often cause harm and destruction. As in many ethnic neighborhoods, the past is very important because to know who we are we must know from where we came. Community and family are of utmost importance. We meet the Lasante’s—Lenny, the father and Frankie, the son. Lenny’s dreams were shattered when he was young and he does not want that happening to Frankie. Lenny and Frankie love each other but they do not share the same ideas about religion and their Italian ethnicity. Frankie is still young; a senior in high school and at that age where it is popular to be different. I think we all go through a phase like that.
Sgambati gives us a look at Italian-American life in modern Queens where the past is more important than the present. The timing of the release of this novel is ideal since here in American we are dealing with immigration issues and we need to be reminded that our history is the history of immigration. What we see here, in effect, is the various attitudes toward immigrants and immigration and we see how many kept to their own in developing neighborhoods. Lenny’s family has Lasante’s Grocery Store and it is through the store that we see both pride and friction as to how the people see traditions and how they assimilate into the great melting pot of America. Family and heredity are the prime dictators of expectations and with that comes pressure from within and from without,. It was impossible to hide from those sexual orientation; these communities did not have expectations and two of the primary examples are gender expectations and where one fits in the order of birth. Needless to say, there was no talk about “people like that”. Naturally to be a non-conformist meant that there was a heavy price to pay and even though we hear the characters engage in dialogue about acceptance and respect that is based upon merit, we also see that family is more important.
While this is, on one hand, a coming-of-age novel, it is also a novel about identity. Identity depends on so many different factors and we really see that in “Most Precious Blood”. Our identities come from many places and while we are born with certain attributes to who we are—skin color, name and ethnicity, much of who we are comes from others. So here we are more than through my review and I have not said anything about what happens in the plot although I have thrown out some very strong hints. I am not going to share the plot with you because I want you to love this book as much as I do and that is not just the plot but Sgambati’s lyrical and gorgeous prose. (I knew I had heard the author’s name somewhere but could not remember where until I received some mail from the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival and I realized that he had been included in at least two of their anthologies. I was also reminded that I will be attending this year.
We are taught early on that God accepts us all until he doesn’t and this we usually learn from family that does not accept or make us feel welcome. Blood ties that were once very strong become diluted for many reasons. It is also through the family that we see the themes of familial strife and tension, the difference between the generations, secrets and lies. We also see these through the narrations of father and son, of Lenny and Frankie.
There is a lot going on in “Most Precious Blood” but this is not a “busy” read. There was also a great deal that I could identify with even though I did not grow up in an Italian neighborhood. I grew up in a section of my city that was known as “Jewville” and I have always been many similarities between Italian and Jewish family lives. Most of the “Jewvilles” and other ethnic neighborhoods today are gone and we have all become neighbors and that is just fine.