The Wanderers, grammar school style
a review of Steven Schindler's Sewer Balls by Hugh M. McNally
I may be the wrong person to review this book. Steven Schindler's novel chronicles the experience of growing up in the northwest Bronx in 1963-64. It turns out that I grew up shockingly close to the place where this tale is set, making me predisposed to enjoying it. The title refers to an activity we did on many occasions (fishing old balls out of the sewer). The undisclosed wife of one of the many minor characters in the book, Mr. Santirocco, may have, in fact, been my fifth grade homeroom teacher!
Schindler writes in the voice of Vinny Schmidt, an Italian/German/Irish Catholic eighth-grader (covering many bases) growing up in a crowded apartment on the first floor of a walkup with his parents, juvenile delinquent older brother, and fastidious older sister. His best friend is Whitey Shelley, who in the next door building and has bigger problems with a family which includes a cirrhotic father, abused mother, alcoholic policeman brother, and a second, drug-abusing brother who, inscrutably, goes to Cornell University (he seems smart enough though... must be a scholarship). Whitey and Vinny attend Presentation Grammar school, the local Catholic parochial institution.
Vinny recounts the tale of his last year in grammar school as it happens. It begins right when John Kennedy is assassinated. The national mourning after Kennedy's death needs no reexamination; suffice it to say that its effect was hardest felt in the Irish Catholic community. Vinny begins to tire of all the fuss by Christmas though--as an eighth grader, he is increasingly concerned with girls, clothing style, and music, particularly that of the Beatles.
Vinny's tales ramble through the completion of his grammar school term. In New York City in 1963, school life means 8 years of grammar school, 4 of high school, and maybe college. Truths shine through clearly in his observations, some still shameful for the native Bronx boy in me to admit. Bronxites are parochial to a fault--the world of Vinny and Whitey is very insulated. Even the 25 minute trip on the subway to Yankee Stadium is a big deal. Anywhere else is like going to Mars.
The neighborhood has a disproportionate share of bigots, who hate what's different because they've never experienced it. The popular Catholic culture did much to reinforce the hate. This is embodied in Sister Fidelis, Vinny's teacher, as she describes her flawed, yet commonly shared, understanding of Catholic dogma: "Jews can't go to heaven. Protestants. Muslims. Buddhists. Hindus. Pagans. None of them." Maybe Sr. Fidelis got some rough drafts from Vatican II and knew the time was short before the Pope dropped the dime on her type, so she tried to get in all the hate she could on the class of '64.
Somehow, Vinny isn't affected by the bad stuff and mostly steers clear of big trouble. He's a good kid. It must be in his genes; in Sewer Balls, people are who they are, and don't change much unless they die, get pregnant, get someone pregnant, or go to the hospital. Vinny's actually a pretty good citizen, too--he goes out of his way to express distaste for his peers who pick fights with kids in "Jew Town" (the adjoining neighborhood). Vinny has great respect for Hector Lopez, "the second Puerto Rican kid in history to hang out in the neighborhood." Even Whitey feels bad when he nearly kills a Puerto Rican would-be mugger with an errantly thrown beer bottle. Good has its triumphs in the frequently not-so-good world, and luck really helps too.
There are a few positive influences in Vinny's life. There's a good concerned with the kids, and a black woman at a hamburger joint that tells Vinny to stand up for himself when a careless cashier serves him a Coca-Cola in a dirty glass. Vinny's parents are OK too ("they never uttered the 'F' word")--both mother and father are gainfully employed, something unique in those days. At least Vinny comes out alive and not incarcerated.
Vinny describes his life much as a guide on a tour bus might describe Beverly Hills. We feel much like a passenger; his reactions to the mundane, like school, don't differ much from his take on racier events, like his brother's shotgun wedding. Vinny doesn't even describe the wedding much but we get plenty of detail about Uncle Dominic at the reception, who tells Vinny about smoking marijuana and how white folks really didn't invent rock-n-roll. Vinny seems unaffected, as if he too is a passenger. He isn't moved by events in his life as much as he reports them and moves on. If he's reminded of something when telling the story, we learn about that, too.
Schindler has a lot to say in this book: the Bronx experience, the early 60s experience, the growing-up-Catholic experience, rich-vs.-poor experience, the coming-of-age experience. Sadly, in the stream of Vinny's passivity, a lot gets lost. He has very few dreams for himself; he doesn't mention his ambitions, nor does he reflect on events of his life. Schindler is shooting for Holden Caulfield, but he comes closer Camus' Stranger instead.
Sewer Balls is competently written and overall, I can't help but like it, even if it occasionally stumbles in its ambitiousness. Still, if I weren't already so familiar with Schindler's story and milieu, I wonder if I'd care about Vinny and his plight. Would it all get through to non-Catholic folks who didn't grow up in the Bronx? I hope so.
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