Crime at its Core: Looking Back at Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete (1939)
Author Peter Blauner discusses Christ in Concrete, an often-overlooked novel about the life of Italian immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1920s and a twelve-year-old boy who must support his family after his father’s untimely death.
Most crime novels try to hook you on the first page, or even the first paragraph. Sometimes they do it a little too eagerly, like a nervous host at a cocktail party. But there’s another kind of book that doesn’t give up its charms so easily. I have groaning shelves full of “classics” that I’ve taken two, three runs at without gaining momentum. Even with the ones that have a crime at their core, there is something in the voice, the character, the rhythm of the storytelling bars my entry like the velvet rope at a nightclub. It happened for decades with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It took nearly as long with Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. But if you can crack the code and figure out the passwords, those books invite you into their private worlds and give you privileges that outsiders can’t even imagine.
Christ in Concrete by Pietro Di Donato used to be a famous novel. It was published in 1939, a landmark year for literature, when Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West, Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, Ask The Dust by John Fante also saw print. But even in such august company, Di Donato’s first book stood out. It was celebrated as the great proletarian novel about immigrant life in America, told in the authentic voice of an Italian-American bricklayer.
Di Donato wrote about what he knew. His father Geremio was a master mason who was killed in a Manhattan building collapse in 1923. His widow and children were left destitute, forcing Pietro, his eldest child, to drop out of school at twelve and go to work as an apprentice at his father’s trade as the sole source of support. Somehow this young man of no means and limited education found the novels of Emile Zola and Leo Tolstoy and was inspired to tell the soaring but ultimately devastating story of his family’s struggles. The pain is very close to the surface. Di Donato was only twenty-eight when he wrote the book. The dedication is to his father and his mother, and he uses their real names in the novel. In the first chapter, he imagines the day of his father’s death in florid, poetic detail that’s wrenching to read nearly a hundred years later. Then he vividly describes how the church, the bosses, the legal system, and even God Himself turned their backs on the family that the boy was trying to carry on his own. The result was an instant bestseller that beat out Grapes of Wrath as a Book of the Month Club selection and was recognized by D.H. Lawrence’s widow Frieda as a close relation to her late husband’s Sons and Lovers.
Yet Christ in Concrete has been nearly forgotten. The most recent edition I can find is a Signet paperback from 1993 with an introduction by Studs Terkel. There are relatively few online reviews. I had only heard of the book because the great New York newspaperman Jimmy Breslin said it was one of the few novels he admired. The only other reference I can recall is Philip Roth saying he was on a panel with Di Donato and Ralph Ellison at Yeshiva University in 1962. And, of course, Roth was more interested in talking about the way his own work was received by the crowd.
When I finally turned the cover and tried to read Christ in Concrete, I immediately understood why its reputation had gathered dust. Di Donato does not write in the spare handcrafted Americana of Steinbeck and Fante, or even the tersely stylized vernacular of Chandler and West. His is a voice from another world and another time. His Italian construction workers declaim to each other in the archaic language of grand opera and Greek tragedy. Almost every line of dialogue and description is heightened, ornate, and informed by the then-revolutionary notion of stream-of-consciousness. Time after time, I picked it up and put it down in defeat; Di Donato just wasn’t my guy.
But on a stroll after lunch in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, my friend Chris Smith, a bestselling author himself, told me he was reading the novel and enjoying it. So I decided to give it one more try.
This time, Di Donato’s world opened up to me. I began to hear his construction workers’ dialogue as a kind of classical Italian translated into English, voices singing out among the girders and cables, full of lust and pride. His rough-handedly lyrical descriptions of eating and dancing and praying pulled me in. But I also recognized there was a foundation of authenticity, even more firmly grounded in lived experience than Steinbeck’s or Lawrence’s. Di Donato knew his trade. He gives you the names of tools you’ve never heard of and tells you exactly how to use them. He knows just how much mortar to scoop off and just how much to space your bricks when you’re trying to create a sharp corner. By the time I was done reading, I felt like I could build a brick outhouse on my own.
It’s also, in its way, a crime story. But the crime it concerns is bigger than a bank robbery or a murder. It’s about the crime of decent working people exploited and ultimately crushed under the heel of capitalism. The Christ in this novel winds up in concrete because of the sins of the uncaring builders he works for to earn his daily bread. The political tinge of that theme may have dated the novel for some critics, though Di Donato is never explicit or dogmatic. What stayed with me more was the deep feeling and spiritual anguish of his characters. The tale of a son surviving his father’s death on the job, taking his trowel in hand, and then undergoing a crisis of faith that rips his soul and his family apart still resonates today. You can easily imagine the same story recast in contemporary terms with the children of immigrant laborers from Mexico or China.
Perhaps the book would be better-known today if the movie version had caught on. Because it’s surprisingly good, if not particularly faithful to the novel. It was made in England, of all places, in 1949; bizarrely, Queen Elizabeth visited the set. The director Edward Dmytryk and the screenwriter Ben Barzman had both been blacklisted in America and had to create Little Italy and Brooklyn on the soundstages of Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire. The structure of the story is radically altered to put Geremio (played by the committed but not-terribly-Italian Sam Wanamaker) at the center of the narrative, a man as trapped by the shadows of fate as the heroes of the excellent film noirs Dmytryk had earlier directed like Crossfire, Cornered, and Murder, My Sweet.
It would have been fascinating to see what a Martin Scorsese or a Vittorio De Sica could have done with the same material, but the movie works on its terms. However, it was snakebit upon completion. The English distributor nixed Christ in Concrete as a title, calling it Give Us This Day instead. It tanked overseas and did even worse in America. It could have been doomed by the Communist associations – upon his return to America, Dmytryk named his screenwriter Barzman as a Red to stay out of prison. But it’s also possible that the movie’s shockingly bleak and uncompromising ending would have made it a tough sell under any circumstances. Check it out on YouTube sometime. Or maybe it’ll show up one midnight on Noir Alley on Turner Classic Movies, where it would fit right in.
But read the novel first. When I finally finished it and closed the back cover, I put it firmly on the shelf next to Call It Sleep and The Long Goodbye. That’s where I keep all my favorite books.
PETER BLAUNER is an Edgar-winning, New York Times bestselling author of several novels, including Slow Motion Riot and The Intruder. His most recent novel, Sunrise Highway, is available now.