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Book Review : A Coming of Age Through Passion

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A Boy’s Pretensions by Anthony Giardina (Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 335 pages)

Giardina’s second novel extends the author’s exploration of obsessive love; the theme that suffused his fine first book, “Men With Debts.” Though the competition in this particular specialty is formidable and the practitioners include some magic names, Giardina’s approach is oblique and refreshing.

This time the protagonist is a college freshman, illusions and expectations intact as he leaves his New England hometown for college in New York--for Fordham, not exactly in Manhattan, not precisely Ivy League, but a giant step for Nick Battaglia just the same. He’s scarcely settled in when a bomb blast demolishes his father’s Laundromat and he’s summoned home to manage the business until his father can recover from his injuries. Restless but concealing his resentment, he fulfills his obligations, returning to Fordham despite family pressure to stay in Boston and finish his studies at night.

Pulled by Desire

He’s pulled back to New York not only by ambition, but by his intense attachment to a Fordham professor; a young woman named Cynthia Branner, precariously married to a semi-employed actor; tenaciously holding on to a job at a Jesuit University in which women are probationers at best. Fueled by a volatile mixture of guilt, unattainability and fascination with a person and a way of life so remote from his limited previous experience, Nick falls hopelessly and desperately in love with his teacher. Though at first she keeps him at a proper distance, his intensity finally succeeds in burning away her shaky defenses. Cynthia Branner is as vulnerable as Nick himself, but even if the marriage were more solid and her job entirely secure, Nick’s total, unqualified adoration is an irresistible force.

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The novel is constructed in alternating scenes contrasting Nick’s family life with his fantasies about Cynthia; fantasies that become actuality when his passion prevails and the affair begins in earnest. Tentative and reluctant at first, Cynthia eventually responds with an erotic abandon exceeding Nick’s most baroque dreams. Though the lovers succeed in creating a fragile and temporary world of their own, they cannot shut out the insistent intrusions of her marriage and Nick’s family.

Satire and Passion

These impingements provide an essential relief to the near-unbearable intensity of the central relationship. The author is as adept at satire and comedy as he is in portraying hopeless passion, and the encounters with Nick’s broken-down bandleader uncle Billy and his blowzy bride June are marvelously entertaining. The Boston segments offer us a chance to meet the rest of the Battaglias; the aunts, uncles and cousins who inspire such ambivalence in Nick; his genteel but traditional mother who is so concerned that the caterers won’t provide enough food for the recovery celebration that she prepares supplementary platters of chicken wings herself.

There are also incidental diversions; letters from Nick’s roommate Tommy, whose sexual adventures inspire both awe and envy in Nick; a brief romantic interlude with a young woman named Carmella, who has all too thoroughly overcome the constraints of her strict upbringing; an encounter with poor Viola, widowed as a bride and thrust upon Nick as a consolation prize for his enforced duties at the Laundromat. The emphasis, however, stays firmly upon Nick and Cynthia, with virtuoso passages describing his endless waits for her in the various seedy motels and rooms where they meet.

Living on Love

Unable to eat or sleep for fear of missing her call, Nick literally lives on love for days at time in scenes that strike a delicate balance between anguish and hilarity. Alone in these desolate settings, Nick’s tension and misery elicit a genuinely kinesthetic response.

Unlikely, doomed, and even absurd, Nick’s passion for Cynthia involves the reader as it possessed the participants, and ultimately, it lends remarkable power to what would otherwise be a conventional coming-of-age novel. In a brief epilogue, we find Nick “married but lonely,” living in the same neighborhood where he had once stood in the cold and rain to watch Cynthia’s lighted windows. Running in the park, he had glimpsed her “sitting on a bench at the place where the gravel and the runner’s path meet . . . When I got to the bench, it was empty . . . Then I saw her, standing at the curb, and beside her, David, in his white runner’s uniform. Neither of them seemed to have aged much, but there was still a sadness about them. They moved differently”--which is, after all, a precise definition of maturity.

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