I picked up Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! for totally non-content-related reasons: because I'd been invited to the author's book party; because Chad, the (former) sales rep from Dalkey Archive, sent me a galley and is a super nice guy; because I'd been told that Mark Binelli lives in the neighborhood and wrote most of the book in the café of the bookstore where I work. And the first thing I did was turn to the author interview in the back, figuring I could cheat a little and still look respectably interested in the book while noshing on the publisher's free eats.
But Binelli's explanation of what he was trying to do with this book sucked me right in. I turned back to the beginning and started reading, and I didn't pick up another book for a week (very rare). I bothered my significant other with endless stories and quotations from S&V, missed subway stops, tripped over sidewalks while reading, and found myself thinking about anarchists and stand-up comedians far more often than usual.
Because this turns out to be my favorite kind of book: the genre-bending, pop-culture referencing, intellectually challenging, roller coaster alternate history, with slapstick. The Sacco and Vanzetti of the title are not exactly the Italian anarchists executed after a famously xenophobic trial in the 1920s. They are, rather, an early film comedy team in the style of Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges, or the Marx Brothers. Sacco is the fat one (of course), given to creating chaos whenever possible, and Vanzetti is the straight man, the serious one, the ideologue.
The story unfolds in slapstick movie scenes, interviews, and historical asides. It's not exactly linear, but then neither is comedy. As Binelli states in the in-book interview, "I took cartoonish movie characters and tried to make them somewhat 'real,' but neglected to remove them from their cartoonish movie scenarios." It's extremely unclear where S&V's real life ends and their movies begin – and increasingly, as the book goes on, where the fictional S&V end and their historical counterparts begin. Because isn't slapstick obviously akin to anarchy? – all that upsetting fancy dinner parties, hassling cops, blowing things up, victory to the underdog? And as Binelli makes clear, there's also a similarity between the entertainer and the ideologue: those who, in the name of their cause or their art, are willing to live a fairly miserable day-to-day existence because something great is (maybe) going to come out of it.
This book is fun to talk about for its sophisticated themes: art & its sacrifices, racial stereotypes and comedy, the line between being a victim of capitalism and deciding to blow things up. But it's fun to read for its details: pie fights, knife juggling acts, the funeral of Laurence Olivier with the great comedians of the '20s as pallbearers.
Mark Binelli, as it turns out, is also a really nice guy, and a really promising first-time novelist. I'm really looking forward to hearing more from him as we talk about his book, and engendering some conversation about the ways this experimental novel spins comedy out of politics, fiction out of biography, and serious ideas out of absurdity. We'll be featuring Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! here on the Litblog Co-Op site the week of April 23 to 27, so feel free to join the conversation. There will be wild speculations and sober reflections by LBCers who have read the book, and contests and giveaways for you lay readers.
And if someone gets a pie in the face while we're at it, so much the better.