Saturday, September 03, 2011


Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, Mark Binelli, Dalkey Archive Press, 2006, 353 pp

I read this for a new reading group I joined. It is a great group, willing to read challenging books. This one fits squarely in that category. I can't say that I enjoyed reading it. It felt like work. Mark Binelli seems to have defied every convention of novel writing. Only near the very end did I begin to figure out what he was doing with his characters.

The fictional Sacco and Vanzetti of the novel are vaudeville performers who do slapstick comedy (pie in the face, etc.), a genre of performance art I have never liked. They are tied in oh so loosely with the real Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants with anarchist connections who were given the death penalty in 1927 for murdering two men during a robbery. The conviction made headlines and is still disputed to this day.

In a mash up of incidents that follow the careers of these comedians, supposed historical data, journal entries, and other extraneous bits, you get an overview of the actual case, some comedy and the personalities of these invented clowns.

I finished the book a few weeks ago and I attended the discussion which was wide-ranging and deep. Looking back now what remains with me is an education in how slapstick comedy works and in what entertainment was like in the early 20th century. I am also haunted by those guys, the fictional Sacco and his partner, Vanzetti, who made up a truly odd couple. Finally, I was stunned with admiration by how Binelli could describe a slapstick act in words alone and make me feel like I was watching it in real time.

I am not sorry I read it. I am a firm believer in reading outside my comfort zone because I always learn something. Also I am at heart an anarchist of sorts and revel in seeing a novelist break all the rules.

(Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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