When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond any cliché.”
Generally, I’m a suspicious reader; big claims scare me off. Having never watched a Fellini film and with only Calvino and Pavese as literary signposts, I entered the novel (guided by veteran translator Michael F. Moore) with a healthy amount of skepticism. Just a few chapters in, however, I knew that even if Genovesi hadn’t managed to overcome cliché, he had indeed created an electric book, a book that stirs, and one that you can’t help living—and living with—along the way. It’s fair to say that Genovesi’s English debut touches all the right spots and echoes back just enough universalized Weltschmerz to leave the reader cringing over mistakes they too once made. And, for that, you’re in it until the end.
Live Bait launches with a memory, as things usually do: a fused snapshot, a spark of what was circling through a narrative live wire. Yet for our antihero Fiorenzo Marelli, it is a recollection that continues on, as some would put it, in phantomlike form; he has already lost part of himself (literally) before he hits that strange, dazed, and oddly jaded limbo called high school. This first brush with emptiness has cleared the way for the Italian metalhead’s Bildungsroman to creep into being, made evident as he so casually philosophizes in the novel’s first episode: “Because real emptiness isn’t finding nothing. It’s finding nothing where there’s supposed to be something.” And not so strangely, it is just this emptiness that continues to occupy his life; it is a nebulous hollow that, like the ditches where he finds respite while fishing for bottom feeders, belies a host of other organisms underneath. Now, maybe I’m mixing my reviewer metaphors here. Even so, I’d also hedge a bet that it is by crafting just this eddy of images floating in and out of view that Genovesi grasps onto our “real” world.
The novel rightly begins with a nineteen-year-old Fiorenzo, handless, rehearsing with his band Metal Devastation. He has recently lost his mother and has become increasingly estranged from his father. Fiorenzo’s a smart kid—just let him tell you—although he refuses to continue on as society expects. School, work, all of it can wait. When his father offers to put up a talented outsider from the bicycling team he coaches, Fiorenzo hastily retreats; sensing the aloof new youngster a threat to his throne, he moves into their family bait shop to live among the worms. Cue the soft shuffling of little grubby insects for some novelistic ambience. We hear him muse in his bed for a while: “And there I was, lying down on sacks of amaretto-and-cherry flavored ground bait, thinking this was the sound you heard in the coffin.” He’ll keep that little tidbit for later to write some awful lyrics about his melancholy experience.
Days go by, but Fiorenzo doesn’t budge. His town, Muglione, seems to be rotting. He is cast into a net of familial and social backwash and, feeling the routine ennui that accompanies small-town life, sets about to become famous—it’s what he deserves of course, having spent years as a social outcast—along with his band mates. This includes one chubby guy who, as Fiorenzo relays, believes that, “T-Shirts are the cages of the system.” Their debut at a local festival is on the horizon. But things don’t go as planned. No one is listening. In fact, they’re booed off stage. He isn’t ready. The world is shit. He is ready. Ready for something. He’s angry. Maybe he has the right to be. There is some really rich teenage angst to be mined here, and Genovesi accomplishes it better than Salinger, in my humble opinion. Fiorenzo may sense that things are “phony,” but at least he knows how to take a cosmic joke.
And the saga wouldn’t be complete without a beautiful woman to set off the story, and it just so happens that this woman, believing Italian men to be little boys gone bald, is just curious enough—and perhaps I’m being generous here—to let Fiorenzo in. Her name is Tiziana Cosci: witty, intelligent, a girl with great tits but still plagued with the same stifling insecurity that so many thirty-somethings in quarter-life crisis have yet to shake off. Those sighs of relief—you survived your teenage years!—that you let out while reading passages fervidly narrated by Fiorenzo now get caught in your throat. The anxiety, the shame, the offhand words imprinted on your tongue all still exist; now you’re just better at hiding it. But that’s where the real story begins, where the two fronts of weakness and doubt and curiosity collide: two bodies, strange, new in that I’d do anything to just touch your skin teenage kind-of-way, enter a half-finished tango to the grunts of old Italian men.
I’m not sure if I’m being nostalgic or not—strangely enough, I too had a 19-year-old metalhead boyfriend who is strikingly like the protagonist—but the only word that I’ll allow myself to describe Fiorenzo is “tender,” perhaps because that word also appears on the back cover. I say tender knowing that tenderness is a condition laced with a smattering of other emotions and conditions that we tend to shed with age: a tender narcissism, a tender cruelty, a tender misfit-hood, a tender awkward few fingers not reaching their mark in bed. And this tenderness is also always physical for Fiorenzo, from his phantom limb to the first amorous caresses that he shares with Tiziana. I closed the book a few times in embarrassment for our man on the ground, who, knowing his limits, spells out the delicate situation quite concretely: “Listen, I don’t know how to put it inside, but I can recognize a carp bite a mile away.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a cluster of minor characters that animate the book, types that all those stuck in a languishing little town might recognize. My favorite is a certain Mazinger, who, outfitted in ridiculous hand-me-ups from a fashion-slave grandson, hangs around every corner speaking “like a Japanese robot.” We first encounter him in the bait shop, telling Fiorenzo, “YOUR—DAD—IS—A—SHIT.” Mazinger is part of an elderly troop calling themselves the “Muglione Guardians.” These old men must fight off the gangs of Romanians and other Eastern Europeans who have found their way into the grand village of Muglione, although these Romanian gangsters are not really gangsters, nor are they Romanian. Then there’s Mirko, the little champ set to win back Muglione’s honor. Gripped by those tender years of adolescence, he’s a kid who just wants to fit in and who winds up carrying Fiorenzo’s biggest secret. Put all of these folks together in Genovesi’s world and you’re stuck to the book like glue.
Underneath the jocular weavings of Fiorenzo and his crew, some real tensions—and by real I aim to underscore the tangible anxieties that inevitably work their way into conversation when speaking about the economic situation in Europe at present—poke through. Muglione comes to represent a fierce attachment to tradition that is quickly dying with its elderly brigades. The only things that seem to be prospering are the shops and other business ventures run by immigrants, and anyone who has spent time in Europe knows that the politics around this new class of workers is on the tip of every tongue.
As for the translation, it hits head on. And it is just this kind of book that demands a kind of lived translation—with all of its dialogue and code-switching between generations and genre—in order to keep up with the curious humor that runs right through. I’m hesitant to mention any points where I stumbled in my own reading, not only because I’m not familiar with the source text, but also because I think that Moore has captured so much of what pulled at my heart in his playful rendering. But perhaps as a note for future readers (of which I hope there will be many), I’ll mention that there are a few points where you’re not sure if it’s a teenager or his father speaking. It’s hard for me at twenty-five to read the word “prick” where the word “dick” seems called for; again, I’m drawing on my ex-metal head’s vocabulary. I also learned a new word—“suck-ass”—that I’ll be employing more often. Friends beware.
En fin, Live Bait won’t change your life. But it will open you up. It will open up that part of you that you’ve been trying to cover with dirt and paper in your attempt at adulthood. It’s not mawkish. There’s no grand plan. And there’s some cliché. But most of all, there is tenderness, and I would read the novel again just to feel that bit of warmth emanating from its pages.