Entering the world of Anthony Giardina's deceptively placid third novel is like pushing off from shore onto a lake of childhood memory. Beneath the smooth surface, all the old fears, resentments and disappointments float like unexploded mines. Forty-two-year-old Luca Carcera, married 12 years to a woman who is now eager to start a family, cannot commit to a future with his wife. His much-loved father had abandoned his family in 1962, when Luca was 12, moving across town to a boarding house with another man. Although devastated by this loss, Luca continued to identify with his father. That a man so apparently happy and settled had been spirited away by passion left Luca with a terror that he, too, would be uprooted, that despite his fierce attachment to his wife Gina, "something would catch up with" him one day.
The first half of "Recent History" tells the story of Luca's boyhood and the unraveling of his life when his father left. In a cruel twist, Lou Carcera had fallen in love just as he was moving his wife and son into a handsome new home in an upscale suburb, a new development being carved out of the woods in a small town near Boston. It would be a place for all "the Italians," as Luca's Uncle John put it, prosperous second-generation Italian Americans surprised to find themselves no longer thugs but businessmen.
One night Luca's father, an accountant, brought home one of the groundskeepers from work, a large, loose-cheeked man named Bob Painter, who spent the evening with a diminishing six-pack of Schlitz locked between his knees. Luca was horrified to watch his neat, taciturn father transformed by this interloper. Although Lou had seemed proud enough while planting the backyard shrubs, he now laughed at his gardening efforts, as if showing Bob how little all this mattered to him. Even Luca's mother altered her usual manner, opening up in a way that seemed almost flirtatious. Luca could still hear the adults outside after he went to bed: "My mother made her loud noises and then her murmuring assenting ones, and the men's voices rode under her. It was like they were going away from her secretly, under cover of night, throwing their voices like ventriloquists, so that she could not know how far away from her they already were."
Desperate to lure his father back home, Luca resorts to various ploys, among them a half-hearted friendship with an obviously gay classmate named Andrew Weston. Lou is a man's man, in every sense of the term, and Luca hopes that if Lou catches sight of a charged moment between the boys, he'll be upset enough to return home to his family. Though "Recent History" is not a homophobic novel, Giardina freely and perceptively taps into his characters' sexual anxieties. Luca is right in assuming his father's distaste for the effeminate Andrew Weston. Years later Lou still asked about him ("You don't see that kid anymore, do you? What was his name?" ) and would laugh with relief, reassured of his son's masculinity.
But having his attention drawn to same-sex desire at such an early age, Luca became alert to its every nuance in himself. When he and Andrew admired the same blond football player, it was a sign. When Andrew kissed him goodbye before leaving for college, Luca read his own lack of disgust as pleasure. Some months later, when a college friendship erupted into a brief homosexual liaison, Luca had the evidence he needed. He would be just like his father. When the affair petered out, he felt a mixture of relief and sadness.
Despite its contemporary subject matter, "Recent History" draws on the ancient fear of the bogeyman, of irrational longings that threaten to disrupt the ordinary course of our lives. Even when Luca found his soul mate, Gina, he still made love to her "like a sentry," believing that "this thing I cherished was based on a necessary withholding, a backing off, a willed and careful absence on my part." Secure in Luca's affections, his wife joked with him about his "gay past," not understanding the extent to which Luca had held himself apart from her, or the reasons he refused to have a child. Their growing estrangement comes to a head in the second half of the novel, when Andrew Weston's mother asks Luca and his wife up to Provincetown on Cape Cod, where Lou now lives, to help scatter Andrew's ashes along the shoreline.
Although Giardina's stylish, measured prose does justice to his themes and makes for a compelling read, there is a contradiction between the knowing first-person voice of his protagonist, looking back over a life of watchful detachment, and the psychological terrors he describes. Luca proves such an articulate guide to the mind/body split, even as a young man, that we wonder why he can't observe his dilemma more objectively. The question remains whether Luca would do better to accept his occasional same-sex urges, integrating them into his cohesive life, or to dismiss them as normal, self-contained episodes, more or less irrelevant to his marriage, and no threat at all to his hallowed manhood. *