Sunday, October 18, 2009

Christ in Concrete


For years in used book stores I had passed by the novel "Christ in Concrete" by Pietro di Donato, copyright 1939. It was one of two great books on the condition of labour released that year. The other was "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck telling the story of the tenuous existence of migrant farm workers and the bigotry which they encountered in their trek from the central dust bowls to verdant California.

Di Donato's book deals with the condition of bricklayers and high rise steel men in the Lower East Side of New York City at a time just before the Great Depression.

The protagonist is a young teen, Paul, son of Geremio, foreman of a crew of brick and mortar men of Italian origin. These men return day by day to a building site called "Job" with its physically taxing duties, its pressured pace of production, its sub-standard scaffold network and its under-spec materials.

One day, Good Friday in fact, calamity strikes and the scaffold fails and numbers of good men including Geremio are swept to death or disfigurement. The father is impaled on re-bar and covered in debris and liquid mortar (Christ in concrete).The change to Paul's family is catastrophic. A new baby is on the way, mother Annunziata's eighth.

Paul senses that the duty falls upon him to take up his father's tools and lay brick. Initially he undergoes several gruelling days at "Job" trying his hand at mix, row, overlap and corner. For this he is paid next to nothing, but his determination is solid for a real place and wage.

Listen to one exchange:
"Who brings food to your home?" asked Nazone.
"...No one..."
"How could there be anyone, when he is the first-born - and so young?" said Hunt-Hunt.
"That is why I can no longer go to school..." said Paul.
Nazone said to Paul in under-voice:
"Would you wish to become a master builder of walls like the good spirit your father?"
"I...have his trowel with me."
'Bless God", said Nazone to the men, "and why shouldn't the son of a bricklayer learn the art and bring food to his family? Is the school going to satisfy their needs? The Police? The Army? Or Navy? The Church? Or the City Hall stinking with thieves?

And Paul does encounter difficulty in sustenance and recovery. The store owner will extend no more credit. Father John at the church, being called away from his sumptuous dinner to hear the boy's request, reminds him that there are proper channels and time requirements for benevolence. The rudimentary Worker's Board at City Hall hears from Management and Insurers that Geromio's family's case will probably be denied, falling through the cracks.

So young Paul has but one choice, and for this his mother adoringly calls him her "Christ". Other Christs arrive to meet pressing needs... the superstitious and mystical mid-wife Katarina for the new baby, the bachelor Uncle Luigi who struggles with measures to feed the little ones of his sister and to coach his brave nephew at "Job", the nursing staff who minister for months to Luigi after his dismembering workplace accident, the women and families who rally for the wedding of Luigi to the long sought after widow Cola. In summary life is addressed in all its eventualities - marriage, birth, sickness, tragedy, death, injustice, hypocrisy, hunger, lust, relocation, loneliness, family, comradeship, honour, community - and somehow all in Christ.

The environment is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic with repeated chantings of "Jesus, Mary and Joseph". Much superstition is evident, even with trips to a fortune-teller. But there is also a rock-solid confidence in the watchful eye of Jesus and His compassion, keeping care and protection. There is a soothing assurance in Paul that father Geremio and others are in a good place with the Lord.

In the final segment the focus is on mother Annunziata and failing health. It is the beginning of the Great Depression. Jobs are scarce and often black-marketed. A god-father has also died in a work-related accident. Paul is tired and jaded about faith, prospects and justice. For a time he rejects his mother's Catholicism, and the affront takes Annunziata to new depths.

But in the scene at her death-bed, there is a glimmer of hope:

"Mama," he whispered, "forgive the hurt I have done thee...forgive mama dearest..."
The delicate devotional flame of her being drank fondly from his face, and sang forth quiet tears of love.
She lifted her stiffening fingers to his shoulder and smiled.
Lightly-lightly she caressed his face.
"...son...everything in my world is for thee. For thee I desire the fullest gifts of Heaven- To thee must the good Dio bestow the world-and lasting health. He must bless thee with the flower of womankind and many-many children as yourself...and joy and peace without measure-for to me-thou art most precious..."

I recommend a reading of this short novel. In many instances its rendering is abrupt, impressionist, almost poetic.

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