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Lunatic Heroes Paperback – August 31, 2012
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I have been looking forward to reading C. Anthony Martignetti's Lunatic Heroes: Memories, Lies and Reflections for some time, and now that I have finished reading it, I find I have a lot of different things to say. In fact, what I think I'm going to do is the following.
I am going to write two sections to this review. The first will be an attempt at a more literary perspective of Lunatic Heroes, while the second will deal with my own personal reactions to the stories themselves. Before I go on, however, I just want to say that I will be referring to Anthony by his first name due to the way that I was introduced to him. I will elaborate on that later, but I just want to say that it would feel weird after reading about him and his own work to call him anything else. It's the not first time I have done this with an author and it probably won't be the last.
Lunatia heros is a species of Northern moon-snail that likes to live close to the shoreline of bodies of water. They are large gastropods that like to eat clams and other snails: including members of their own species. They consume their prey by drilling holes in their shells, releasing digestive enzymes, and sucking out the partially digested contents of their victims from within those shells. In fact, the only thing left of their fellow snails are these empty shells. According to Wikipedia, these moon snails hunt other mollusks down by searching for those that bury themselves in the sand of the shoreline.
Of all the titles Anthony could have given his work, Lunatic Heroes is by far the most apt. This book is essentially a collection of fifteen short stories or, technically written recollections, of some of the major events in Anthony's life. Even though the book itself is categorized as a memoir, which it is, each narrative is both interrelated and self-contained.
At least twelve of these stories deal with Anthony's childhood with his Italian-American family in Boston, while the remaining three focus on Anthony as a developing independent adult all the way to contemporary times. I don't want to make too much of a generalization, but each story is about the insanity of the human condition. After all, the word lunatic is derived from the Latin word Luna and it was once thought that someone suffering from madness was "moon-touched," while at the same time the moon itself has always been associated with the other world of the night, creativity and intuition.
In this, the metaphor of Lunatic Heroes functions in a few different ways. On one hand, most of Anthony's stories are about the dysfunctional elements of his own family and his 1950s childhood: about the way each character would attempt to devour Anthony's extremely introverted essence, digging under the sand where his self hid in order to successfully-or unsuccessfully-get at it.
On the other hand, Anthony's narratives also take many of these same characters and portray their other more relatable sides. It is no coincidence, after all, that the heroes of ancient literature-for all of their deplorable moral behaviour by contemporary standards-still possessed a spark of divinity and managed to perform great deeds. In a fiercely passionate and witty voice tempered with a nostalgic unsentimentality not unlike that of Will Eisner, Anthony manages to show that these characters from his own life aren't always monsters, but are very fallible human beings with some moments of relation, levity, and downright comedy: even and especially in some of the worst situations that he depicts.
What drew me in as a reader were the very mutable archetypes that Anthony managed to identify in his life: specifically with regards to how they transferred and inter-lapped throughout each story that he gathers together into a strange whole. Sometimes each narrative doesn't always fit in a straight-line-which is more than fair given how a life of human interactions is generally never shaped that way-and he occasionally repeats a sentence from a previous story. But the archetypes really drew me in. Certainly, the whole Scylla and Charybdis parallel childhood dilemma in "Force Fed" was made very uncomfortably clear, just as the figure of a Far Eastern form of enlightenment and a symbolic place of personal transformation is within "Swamp."
I am going to give Lunatic Heroes a four out of five.
And here is why.
After reading "The Introduction" and Anthony's "Acknowledgments," and just hearing about him and some of his life from Amanda Palmer's Blog, I wanted to know ... more. Even though the way he describes his childhood, sometimes blatantly and sometimes tinged with hazy mythical half-memories is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Violent Cases, I want to know about the rest of it: the adolescent rebellion you see forming in the latter stories, what happened in the rest of his travels, what his other fights were about, and more about his exposure to other philosophies and other relationships.
You can find the unabridged version of my review, along with its second more personal section, on my website which is located under my profile. Anthony's Lunatic Heroes is a very excellent book. I hope you will enjoy it.
By C. Anthony Martnetti
In the introduction to Lunatic Heroes by C. Anthony Martignetti, singer/songwriter/musician/rockstar Amanda Palmer writes, "Anthony is a therapist, and a good listener."
That succinct characterization, included in a moving introduction about her lifelong relationship with Martignetti, whom she has known as a "mentor," "guru," [and] "best friend" since she was nine years old, describes in accurate and deliberate understatement the narrative voice of this powerful storyteller in his book, Lunatic Heroes. The title, which refers to his boyhood family, in reality, of course, describes all of us who suffer as fellow captives in the Human Condition.
This collection of stories both long and short amounts to a memoir of Martignetti's youth, growing up in the outskirts of Boston amid his Italian-American forebears. A sensitive boy who often felt isolated and outcast, his innate discomfort and alienation was reflected in early habits of nail-biting, self-afflicted hickeys, and a general resistance to most of the food his family routinely ate, "including, but not limited to: whole-roasted goat head ... pigs' feet, congealed blood pie, baby cow stomachs ... [and] "[g]arlic, garlic, and more garlic, garlic out your butt." As a result he was routinely insulted and beaten by his narcissistic mother, who would at other times smother him in love he craved, but whose mood would rarely last the day without including a dark turn. "Home was the place of love's promise," Martignetti observes, "and also the place where the wounds of love churned."
The stories and characters aren't all dark, some are positively comic (if darkly comic at that), with anecdotes of school friends and extended families and a larger-than-life grandfather who would let young Anthony carry a bag of cash to the bank, while "Nonno" followed behind, loaded gun in hand. The author often manages to strike an ironic if rueful tone even when describing routine lunacies, such as his mother gluing Lee Press-On Nails over his own in order to keep him from nail-biting - which led to his acquiring a taste for the plastic nails, which she would sometimes hand him as a treat when out in public, like giving a child a piece of candy.
Young Anthony's relationship with his father was no less complex, tracking a range of highs and lows that eventually led to his father's confession when "...years later he told me he loved me because I was his son, but that I just wasn't his type of guy." The author adds, "He was my idol, and I needed to be his type of guy." Don't we all.
The best non-fiction literature is that which uses the micro to illustrate the macro, and the compelling beauty of Martignetti's stories can be found in the parallel truths unique to his experience that lie side-by-side with truths that are unmistakably universal, and the tension and balance between the two keeps one riveted to the page. I laughed, I cried ...
In a tale of a mystic and magisterial bullfrog, a longtime resident at the local pond, Martignetti looks back on the cruelties of older boys who eventually trap the animal - a moment in which I had to turn away from the page in fear of impending cruelty - and draws connection and insight between the tragic creature and those Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in protest against an oppressive North Vietnamese regime. Looking back, "The monk who gave his life was a hero to me, as was Bullfrog before him."
Martignetti's super power is the ability to see these connections that are invisible to or overlooked by others, and the simultaneous humor and horror thereby revealed is impossible to turn away from. In recounting a first childhood crush, and its encompassing sense of inchoate longing, he recalls, "I had no idea what to do with her - I was a rabbit chasing a tricycle." Comic or tragic, the author's vision is unfailingly 20-20.
I read "Lunatic Heroes" not really understanding what I was getting into. I ordered this book and his next book through an offer on his website. I know of him through Amanda Palmer who writes about her relationship with him as her mentor and friend in her book and she also writes the preface of Lunatic Heroes.
The book is a series of stories from Martignetti's childhood with all of the many faceted characters that played roles in his personal life growing up. He pulls no punches in allowing us to see these characters through the eyes of a young boy at a time when life appeared more peaceful than it actually was. Appearances were paramount in the 1950's and the reader is met head on in this matter by his choice of cover photo. The theme of appearances weighs heavy on the young Martignetti and we get a unique view of this from a gifted writer who is brave enough to show us how this weight impacted his world as a child in a candid and charming manner.
It wasn't long before the stories of Martignetti's childhood had me enthralled. He is a gifted storyteller and has a way of capturing the tone of the time of his youth without relying on popular culture references but leaning into a common point of association for any child growing up using his acute memory of what these experiences felt like as a boy. This allows for a rich resonance in the stories that will appeal to anyone who has any recollection of their childhood at all. This is not a jolly romp but a rich mining; a charming and sometimes humorous yet courageous telling of one boy's rich, chaotic and dysfunctional youth. I highly recommend it.
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