The Man who Turned Fact into Fiction

Angelo Madalena (Lorenzo's brother) gives the remarkable nonfiction

From left: Caesare, Angelo, Matilda, Mary (baby), Lorenzo (in front), Joseph Ferraro, Mary Ferraro (Madalena), c. 1929
  • From left: Caesare, Angelo, Matilda, Mary (baby), Lorenzo (in front), Joseph Ferraro, Mary Ferraro (Madalena), c. 1929

One of the most famous bits of literary advice in the 20th Century was Sherwood Anderson’s suggestion that William Faulkner write not about aviators and New Orleans bohemians (the subjects of his first two novels) but about that “little postage stamp of native soil” he knew so well, Jefferson County, Mississippi, which he called Yoknapatawpha County, which became the subject of his life’s work. Lorenzo Madalena is no William Faulkner, but he also knew “a little postage stamp of native soil” well, and that spot is located here in San Diego, bounded by Kettner Boulevard (called Water Street when Madalena lived there) on the west, Columbia Street on the east, Ash Street on the south, and Laurel Street on the north. It is, of course, San Diego’s Little Italy, and its main thoroughfare is India Street, where the air is charged with the savory traces of provolone, baccala (dried codfish), garlic, and olive oil. The groceries and restaurants in the neighborhood still provide aromatherapy for the Italian soul.

Surely no other novel captures life in that ethnic enclave as it was lived in the post–World War II years as well as Confetti for Gino. In Italian culture, nothing is more important than la famiglia — the family — the source of all of life’s comfort as well as its woe. Madalena’s novel illuminates the dynamics of Italian family life, its melodrama and emotional turmoil, as he lived it coming of age in Little Italy in the ’40s and ’50s. He shows us what an insular network of repressive and interwoven feelings of pride, guilt, shame, longing, devotion, and loyalty an Italian family can be. This is probably true of any family, but Madalena depicts that particular condensation of emotional intensity that is distinctly Italian.

Madalena died of lung cancer in 1985, his novel long out of print, his work virtually forgotten. Lorenzo’s older brother, Angelo Guido Madalena, now 84, lives in a single-family brick house in University Heights. He told me about his family’s history.

“My father emigrated from the Piedmont region of Italy when he was 18 because his family was poor. All they could do was milk a few cows and grow a few vegetables; there was no manufacturing. My mother also came over at 18 but at a different time because my dad was older than my mother. He came in about 1890 or so, roughly, and my mother was still a child then. Although they came at different times and did not know one another in Italy, they both went to Ellis Island and then my mom stayed in New York working as a maid. That’s all women foreigners could do then was serve as maids in hotels; and Dad headed west because he was sponsored by an uncle from Italy who lived near San Francisco.”

After working on his uncle’s ranch during the early years of the 20th Century, Caesare moved to San Francisco and became a laborer. Soon he got to be very good at pouring cement and making concrete sidewalks. In San Francisco, he met his wife, Matilda, who had left New York and settled in the San Francisco Italian community of North Beach. The two married and Matilda gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Mary. The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 not only devastated the city but also terrified many of the immigrants who had settled there. Caesare heard about opportunities in San Diego, so he took the family south and settled in Little Italy, where he worked as a laborer for four or five years, fathered a second child, Angelo Guido, and then opened a grocery store that catered to the Italian community.

Lorenzo was born in 1920, in a little house at India and Fir right next door to his father’s store. He attended Washington School, Roosevelt Junior High School, and San Diego High School, went to Italy in the armed forces, and returned to graduate from State College. He then went to Berkeley for two years to earn his master’s degree in English literature. When he finished his degree, he taught at San Diego High School and then got a permanent position at San Diego City College. He also did some postmaster’s work at the University of Mexico City but never completed a doctorate.

Lorenzo Madalena

Lorenzo Madalena

Madalena worked on Confetti for Gino on and off for over ten years, submitting it to several publishers and collecting rejection slips, as well as suggestions as to what he might do to make it a publishable novel. The rejections were discouraging, but Lorenzo persevered, and the fine-tuning shows in the clarity of the writing, the forward momentum of the narrative, and the exquisitely observed details of life in Little Italy at midcentury.

Confetti for Gino is a finely crafted novel, structured around three events: a wedding, a funeral, and an annual Christmas dance called “The Big Blowout.” Interspersed between these events are detailed descriptions of tuna fishing and Italian meals and generous helpings of Italian-American lore, language, and culture.

Gino DeMarino is a young fisherman, captain of a San Diego–based tuna boat called the Stella del Mare (Star of the Sea). Gino is the capo of his family because his father, Gaetano, also a tuna-boat captain, was killed in an auto accident while Gino was away in the Navy. He provides for his mother; his sister Anna, who has been abandoned by her “American” sailor husband; Anna’s two children; and his teenage brother Nino.

Like the first-generation offspring of many Italian immigrants, Gino is ambitious and torn between devotion to his Italian heritage and the lure of the American Dream. He is resistant to following in his father’s footsteps because, as he puts it, “Who ever heard of a fisherman being anybody?” He chooses a middle way that keeps both sides of his character intact: “He would make himself the best damn fisherman in the fleet. Then, with money, he would move into the fine American world that everyone prized.”

Gino falls in love with Vicky, a blond American waitress who works at the Circle Drive-Inn, a nightclub on Harbor Drive where the Italian fishermen hang out. He decides he wants to marry her. While much of the novel tells the story of Gino’s conflicted love for an “outsider,” an important subplot concerns the relationship between Gino and his “midget” (not a PC word today, but appropriate in the context of the ’50s) 14-year-old brother Nino. The tenderness and warmth of that relationship and Gino’s paternal protectiveness of his vulnerable brother are portrayed with great emotional detail and exactness. In fact, this brotherly bond produces one of the book’s most surprising turns and deepens the story beyond its “local color” aspects.

Gino’s feelings for Vicky are conflicted because Mamma DeMarino has other plans for her handsome young son. She wants him to marry the devout and very Italian Teresa Crivello. She is not shy about her wishes: “Gino, my son, understand that you are Italian. Your dear father Gaetano, may God rest his soul, and I raised you and Anna and little Nino as Italians. You are accustomed to our ways, our family life, food, church, everything Italian. It is because we wished for it, for we knew it would be best for you. We wanted you to be happy. You would not find happiness with someone who does not understand our way of life.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because you could hear the same rationale from an “old school” parent of virtually any ethnic group. Substitute “Jewish,” “Irish,” “Chinese,” “Indian,” etc., for Italian and you have the claustrophobic world that many immigrant parents try to sustain for their children in America, while at the same time sending them out to participate in the larger, more open and multicultural society. But writers convey the universal through particulars; it is the Italian-American world of San Diego’s Little Italy that gives Confetti for Gino its unique flavor.

Madalena knows the Italian-American ambiance well and works to convey its subtleties. In that environment, one is either an Italian or an outsider, and outsiders are viewed with suspicion. The characters in the novel are referred to either as Italian, as Mexican, or by the all-purpose, nondescript word for outsiders: American. (There are occasional references to the Portuguese, who also worked as fishermen here.) Many Italian men at that time worked in the fish trade, and although Lorenzo didn’t, he had close friends who did.

Angelo Madalena, c. 1949

Angelo Madalena, c. 1949

Angelo recalls some of his brother’s friendships: “He grew up with that [fishing] all the time because we were right on India Street where all the fishermen were. Everybody went to one school — that was Washington School on State Street — and so he got to know all the fishermen’s kids.

“They built Our Lady of the Rosary church in 1925, and I was an altar boy there for about seven, eight years. Then my brother came after me, six years later. I was getting to be high school age, so I stopped being an altar boy although I went to church all the time, ushering and taking the collection. My brother grew up with another little group six years younger — his best friends were just around the corner, maybe about 200 feet away. They were Todd and Anthony Ghio of Anthony’s fish restaurant. He was always at the Ghio house, back and forth, and the three of them got to be three of the best altar boys all together because they knew all of the answers in Latin, you know, the responses to the priest, which I never did — I didn’t want to. Although I lasted maybe even longer than them because I just used to go more. I think I was an altar boy until I was about 15 or 16, and I started at about 10, but my brother was very, very good and so was Anthony of the Fish Grotto. Anthony and Todd served in the armed forces during World War II, and when they got back in 1945, they opened up a small fish restaurant. The first one was at the foot of Market. I think they had about eight or ten seats in it, and their mother worked there as well.

“My brother was connected with them — they were fishermen although he wasn’t — that was all anybody ever did there, either worked on the boats and others mended nets. The ladies were always in back of the yard mending nets. I used to like to see them. I could never understand how they could move their hands so fast. These are nets that went out for sea bass, barracuda, and halibut. There were five canneries on Harbor Drive near where Anthony’s restaurant is now, and as kids, all of us hung around the canneries there. It was just something to see them unload fish, whether it was tuna, sardines, mackerel, or anything. We watched them dumping the fish into the big sloughs there and the ladies packing them all. I ended up on a fish boat for about seven years because they were paying pretty good money, but Larry never worked as a fisherman. He was too intellectual for that.

“Anyway, that’s the beginning of it, and I think that’s where Larry got the idea to write Confetti for Gino. He was fascinated by the fishermen’s lives. One summer, when my brother was a teacher at San Diego High School or Junior College — that was about 1949 or ’48 — he got permission to go out on a tuna-boat trip just to see what it was like. So he made a trip and had a lot of fun. The idea of doing a novel about tuna fishing turned into a better idea of writing a novel about the whole district — India, Columbia, State Street, the waterfront; he knew the place very well and he wanted to get all of these characters in there.”

Lorenzo Madalena c. 1959

Lorenzo Madalena c. 1959

Many of the characters Lorenzo wrote about were based on actual people, and when the novel was first published, in 1959, the buzz in Little Italy was the game of seeing who could be identified as the model for one or another of the characters. Angelo describes the reaction: “When the book came out, a lot of the Italians, the mothers and fathers especially, couldn’t read or speak very good English, but their children could. The kids would read it aloud to them and they would speculate about who was who. ‘Was that Johnny, was that Frank, was that Louie?’ But it was not very popular outside of San Diego. He only sold about 1500 copies; that’s all, very little. Larry was very disappointed by the response. I think that’s why he never wrote another novel.”

Angelo Madalena c. 2000

Angelo Madalena c. 2000

It’s too bad he didn’t because Confetti for Gino is the work of a talented writer with a distinctive literary vision. When most people think of “Italian-American” writing they think, of course, of The Godfather by Mario Puzo and are not aware of the substantial tradition of Italian-American writers — Pietro di Donato, John Fante, Diane DiPrima, Helen Barolini, John Ciardi, Don DeLillo, Tina De Rosa, Gilbert Sorrentino, Gay Talese, Dana Gioia, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, and many more whose work has nothing to do with descriptions of the mafia but does give a glimpse of the lives of first-generation Italian immigrants and their families. The reappearance of Confetti for Gino happily adds the name of Lorenzo Madalena to this distinguished list.

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