On the book’s cover: “Vincenzo Malinconico has a chance to make a fresh start. The Italian mob is going to help.” This is a very misleading quote because although the novel does have something to do with the mob, the bulk of the story has more to do with the main character, Vincenzo Malinconico, a 42 year old lawyer who is struggling with his life as well as with his job. Essentially a down and out lawyer, with hardly any real knowledge of criminal law, an office space furnished with Ikea furniture (as is his apartment), dealing with an ex-wife (a psychiatrist, who has taken up with a yuppie architect), a teenage son who likes to follow around juvenile delinquents and interview them, and a college age stepdaughter who he clandestinely meets once a week to eat Burger King (away from the prying eyes of his ex-wife); it’s safe to say that things aren’t going so well for him.
Then one day he is called to appear at a magistrate’s office as a public defender - something he had forgotten he signed up for - to represent a member of the Camorra (the Mafia in Naples) who had been arrested because they found a hand buried in his back yard. He wants nothing to do with them and decides that he is going to turn down the case but much to his dismay, he learns that he can’t, since it’s his duty as a public defender to take on the case. For some reason, the magistrate decides not to hold the man and sets up an appointment for a future hearing. Feeling relieved that he is now free of them, he concentrates on the other things in his life - like trying to figure out where the hell he is going. An affair with one of the city’s most alluring lawyers then disrupts his plans, not to mention that in an incident with a street tough, another Camorrista, a short but brutally tough man who had been following him, comes to his rescue, then invites him to a café to discuss how they wanted to hire him to help them win the case against their man.
Vincenzo tries to go about his business and his life, all the while being followed by the short, tough Camorrista, acting as both bodyguard and in a way a guardian angel. The narrative, by this point, is an oftentimes hilarious riff on modernity, with Vincenzo’s story often going off on many digressions about society, love, sex, relationships, marriage, fatherhood, friendship, and even music. Witty, insightful and hilarious, you can’t help but be drawn in by it all. You soon learn that it is also a commentary on how much the Camorra’s influence and presence has impacted life in Naples and how perilous it is to navigate the Italian legal system.
This was an absolute joy to read, often finding myself laughing out loud and actually relating to the insights of Vincenzo as he tells you his story. It’s fun to watch him change throughout the story, and in a strange way, the ominous presence of the Camorra over his life - lurking like a shadow - helps him realize that he had basically allowed people to walk all over him and you cheer for him as he, little by little, begins to regain the reigns of his own life - in a way. We are actually left wondering - but it’s clear that something has changed in him by the novel’s end - and how it actually ends will be up to you to find out for yourself. Another highly recommended read.
Rating: * * * * *