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A pie in the face

Mark S. Luce lives in Kansas City, Mo., where he teaches at the Barstow School.

ONE of the first appearances of comedy team Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy was in producer Hal Roach’s 1927 silent short “The Battle of the Century,” in which Laurel plays a wisp of a boxer whose crooked manager (Hardy) tries to collect on an insurance policy by making the fighter slip on a banana peel. Instead, a pie man loses his wares after tumbling on the peel, storms up to the bulky Hardy and drills him in the kisser with a pie. Chaos ensues, with a city block engaging in cinema’s creamiest pie fight.

But the affaire de tarte may have been even richer. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t exist in its original form, for much of it has been lost. The donnybrook we see today consists of editing by Robert Youngson, specifically for his 1957 compilation tribute to silent film stars, “The Golden Age of Comedy.” Youngson, thankfully, saved the pie fight, but he also trimmed the scene by half, got rid of the title cards and juggled the sequence of events, leaving us to wonder what we’re missing.

Mark Binelli considers what history might have missed in his hysterically funny first novel, “Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!” Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried, convicted and executed for the 1920 murders of two men during a payroll robbery in South Braintree, Mass. The pair’s case generated worldwide attention and fostered impassioned debate, with many arguing that the avowed anarchists were nothing but victims of a politically motivated prosecution. Instead of trotting out the infamous executionees for political grandstanding, Binelli re-imagines the duo as slapstick comedians a la Stan and Ollie. His slim, straight-man Bart and fat, gag-prone Nic rise from, respectively, an eel monger and shoe-edge maker to become international film stars with a pointed calling card: knife-throwing routines as dangerous as they are balletic.

The conceit -- with its attendant “edge” and “blade” metaphors -- works extremely well, not only as an entertaining exercise in alternative history but also as a contemplation of comedy, ethnic definition and friendship. Binelli’s pair inhabit the muddy borders between Italian and American, fiction and invention, and laughter and despair as they traverse 50 years of successes and slips.

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Binelli balances his protagonists with aplomb, nimbly playing them off each other. The novel’s purposely disjunctive structure complements Binelli’s robust sense of history; we catch small glimpses of the real Sacco and Vanzetti in the book’s funhouse mix of made-up fictional newsreels, movie magazine interviews and historical interludes, as well as snippets from faked scholarly books, Bart’s private diaries and Nic’s unfinished gag guide. Binelli ties together these disparate sources with scenes culled from the vaudeville duo’s movies, which often play as set pieces that explore the men’s interior development. The results can be as dizzying as a Mack Sennett Keystone comedy, but the book’s rollicking pace and even its touching moments and deeper implications -- how do we really know anyone? -- find ample breathing room in Binelli’s shimmery postmodern stylings.

In tracing the comic pair’s rise and subsequent fall (they are sued by a former neighbor for stealing his knife routine), Binelli whizzes through real-life characters with ease, be it a plucky Bob Hope, heavyweight champ Primo Carnera or pretty boy Italo Balbo, Mussolini’s aviation minister. Gags, too, come rapid-fire. Nic and Bart narrowly escape a pie fight they start at an art unveiling, and they wage a massive shoe warehouse battle. Zany incidents dominate the novel, with the pair befriending ventriloquists, making fun of Helen Keller and harassing a man wearing a beard of bees.

One of the book’s most amusing scenes casts the pair as pallbearers at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral. As they mill around the open casket with Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, the men traffic in inappropriate (and wildly droll) rigor mortis jokes before Chaplin is forced to trip a crazed funeral interloper with his trademark cane.

But in the novel’s subdued moments, the twosome feel more like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” There’s an inherent loneliness to Bart, who considers his dead mother the audience for his diary entries. Even as he’s about to be clobbered by angry singers, the straight man can’t seem to find a normal response. Binelli writes, “Oddly, Bart did not feel afraid, but more like inappropriately exhilarated. Maybe there was something to what had, frankly, seemed like a rather superficial interpretation of his personality. Maybe he thrived on disruptions from the norm, but lacked the genetic capability to be the direct agent of said disruption. Maybe something inside him thrived on being acted upon.” During a USO tour of postwar Italy, Bart visits imprisoned poet Ezra Pound, who’s as decrepit and esoteric as ever. Afterward, though, Bart wishes that he, like Pound (and to a certain extent Nic), could “reject the din of conventional opinion.” Bart continues, “What, after all, can be ‘known,’ if the most knowledgeable amongst us know so little?

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“In which case, maybe there is hope that something exciting will turn up, in the future. Something unexpected.”

Bart waits for that moment for half a century, whereas his partner focuses on making that moment right then. Ruffled and uncouth, Nic continually ponders his next jest. “Nic’s problem, or gift, depending on your perspective, was his realization that everyone possesses some potential for mutiny, however buried. He wanted nothing more than to draw that potential out. So a pie fight could in part be described as a hostile act, true, but it could also be described as an act of love. An out-reach.”

Unfortunately, Binelli reaches, too, in the final third of the novel. The diminished jocosity mirrors the troubles of the aging duo, but the book loses comic momentum in its last 100 pages to Binelli’s straying focus (Nic and Bart on Mars), strained metaphors (a long stretch in which the pair are handcuffed together) and a longer, less structurally sound detour into the real trial. Still, such shortcomings remind us of the risks undertaken by writers of experimental fiction. When the alternative history coupled with slapstick breaks its form, the fallout, ironically, leads us back to the physical and emotional hazards that underpin the enterprise of comedy.

Asked if he was an anarchist, the real Sacco replied, “Some things I like different.” Mark Binelli’s pugnacious, inventive and rowdy debut delivers a palpable, endearing mark as it splats a lemon-meringue pie in history’s puss, leaving one to muse, “Some novels I like different.” *


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