cover image Johnny Critelli

Johnny Critelli

Frank Lentricchia. Scribner Book Company, $21.5 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-684-81408-7

Drawing on his own upbringing, novelist and critic Lentricchia (The Edge of Night, etc.) has fashioned two short novels that display a rousing capacity for language and a gritty sense of the contemporary male mind. Johnny Critelli ostensibly chronicles the legend of the eponymous character, a mysterious figure in the Italian-American neighborhood of Utica, N.Y., Lentriccia's hometown. Critelli serves only as a jumping-off point for an extended riff on an upstate New York childhood in the 1950s, touching on little league games, hero-worship of Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, the discovery of sex and, especially, the intense, volatile relationships within an Italian immigrant family--whose members bear the names of the author's own close relatives. This is no meandering, nostalgic memoir, however. Adeptly switching points of view among himself, his father, his mother, even his current girlfriend, Lentricchia wrings drama from the spectacle of family members struggling mightily to understand one another. The narrative generates a sense of urgency that, along with the author's knack for the clever phrase, overcomes a diffuse plot. The second offering, The Knifemen, makes use of the same setting, this time re-imagining it as the breeding ground of Richard Assisi, a gynecologist who devolves into an ice-cold, knife-wielding killer. Here, however, the verbal play is too self-conscious, the numerous sexual and scatological references meaningless. By the end, Lentricchia's techniques undercut the story, making the violence seem more like a gratuitous verbal exercise--daring to talk dirty--than the result of psychological horror it's clearly intended to be. (Dec.)