The Life of the World to come

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The title of Joseph Barthani’s powerful new novel was taken from lines in the Nicene Creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
The reference turns up later in the book, when its hero George Dolce thinks back on two of his childhood friends, Dave and Alex. The former became a junky, the latter a wreck of a man who “was holed up in his attic painting terrifying, beautiful nightmarish scapes that nobody understood. What he called The Life of the World to Come. Two years later he was dead.”

Barthani, a distinguished poet and novelist, pushes deep into his own nightmarish vision of Pittsburgh in the 1970s, when that once flourishing steel town began to disintegrate and die, a victim of predatory capitalism. Much of the tale takes place in East Liberty, a largely Italian section where the Dolce family has lived since the end of WW II. The father’s job as a blast-furnace foreman has supported the family all these years, but now, one year short of retirement, his job comes to an end as US Steel begins to shut down the mill and start over in some third-world country where labor is cheap and nonunionized.

It remains for George, the handsome, clever, golden-boy of a son–-he’s on the verge of attending an Ivy League law school–-to try and help with his parent’s finances. He does this not just by taking a job in a pharmacy but by getting involved in some heavy-duty gambling. His desperate need for money leads to an entanglement with neighborhood bookies and gangsters. While trying to outwit these hard guys, he also enters into a passionate love affair with his boss’s daughter, Sterling.

He’s Catholic, working-class and street; she’s Jewish, wealthy and sophisticated. Barthani’s depiction of their contradictory worlds is handled with much aplomb and skill, alternating between black comedy and high drama.

Eventually, George gets in so deep with the mob that he must flee Pittsburgh for his life. He heads south, seeking warmth, safety and peace, only to encounter a different kind of danger and malevolence: a hail-storm, poisonous snakes, haunted trees (where escaped slaves were once lynched), xenophobic natives. In this surreal darkness is a single ray of light: a young waitress named Crow, who takes him in “like she would an odd breed of dog, one she hadn’t quite seen the like of before.”

They fall in love: Crow takes him to meet her parents, both of whom are born-again Christians who are shocked to learn he’s not only a Yankee but, gasp!, a Catholic. “Where would you go this instant were you to drop dead?” Crow’s mother asks.
After deliberating, George answers: “Purgatory.”

The comment pretty much sums up the theme of Barthani’s novel. George remains in a state of temporary punishment for most of the book, suspended between heaven and hell, waiting to learn which world will claim him.

Written with strength, humor and a blazing intelligence, THE LIFE OF THE WORLD TO COME is a novel to savor and remember.

(University of South Carolina Press, 272 pages, hardcover, $29.95)