by Alberto Moravia
translated by Michael F. Moore
NYRB Classics, 128 pages
by Louis Greenstein
New Door Books, 316 pages
reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin
MUSEUMS OF INNOCENCE
In September 1980, military officers took over the Turkish government. Soldiers arrested 500,000 people, executed some of them, and installed martial law. Ultimately, the coup ended years of political and economic instability, but most remarkably it led to Turkey’s integration into the global economy, and eventually its status as an emergent power. Gone were days of economic and cultural isolation—a shared national innocence that novelist Orhan Pamuk has so daringly and insistently memorialized in the novel Museum of Innocence (2008)—and before that in My Name is Red (2003) and the memoir Istanbul (2005). In these books he has rebuilt and recreated a deeply provincial, yet colorful and highly idiosyncratic world that otherwise was trapped in his head.
This same instinct seems to motivate the author Louis Greenstein, a playwright, whose first novel, Mr. Boardwalk, was published last month by New Door Books. Greenstein’s museum of innocence is Atlantic City in the decade before 1978, when the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel was converted into Resorts International, the city’s first casino.
Greenstein conjures this pre-gambling world of the fortune teller Madame Diane, Jimmy, the patriarch of a Roma family that runs a marionette theater, his wife “My Edna,” their drug dealing son Bobby, Norman and Betty, Holocaust survivors who own the Two for One Arcade, the fudge stand, the Steel Pier, even the smell of the place in full fury: “Grease and sugar wafting from the takeout stands. Cigar smoke. Roasted peanuts.”
The book’s narrator is a former boardwalk juggler, Jason “the Magnificent,” about seven years old when his parents open a pretzel bakery and stand in Atlantic City, in 1967. Each summer the family decamps from the Philadelphia suburbs to the boardwalk, a world of magic and wonder to the young boy, “the soul of America,” according to Jimmy. At age eight, Jason is performing for crowds in front of the bakery and the marionette theater, perfecting an act while binding himself emotionally to a place, that like 1960s and 1970s Istanbul, is frayed by “inflation, crime and shit.”
Greenstein, like Pamuk, extends the metaphor to a love relationship—in this case Jason’s first love, high school classmate, Sarah—that will inevitably crash. As Kemal, the protagonist of Museum of Innocence, loses his love in the wake of the military coup, Jason loses Sarah just as the age of the casino begins. Jason, like Kemal, is a naïf in the sense that nothing will interfere with his obsession for his love—not the least of all practical concerns. At 16, he’s planning on buying a house in Atlantic City for them to live in forever. Jason is rather stunningly oblivious, a character trait that is sometimes hard for the reader to bear.
Much of Mr. Boardwalk is indeed a fairly familiar coming of age story that follows Jason’s journey through middle school and high school as he experiments with drugs and friendship, endures personal tragedy, and tries to make sense of a growing obsession with Atlantic City that no one else seems to understand. Jason’s loss of innocence is ultimately anticlimactic; he gives up on the place, “expunging all signs of the Jersey shore from my professional resume” and his personal life, never telling his wife about the house he had bought, and still owns, for a life that never would be.
But perhaps the pain of loss of innocence is too much: one has to escape the source of the pain as well as that naïve self that still lingers, sore and dumbfounded. This is the reaction of Agostino, a 13 year old boy who is spending the summer with his widowed mother at a beach resort in Tuscany, and who is the protagonist of the eponymous novel by the late Italian writer Alberto Moravia. NYRB Classics has just brought out Agostino in a new translation by the accomplished Michael F. Moore.
Moravia writes with spare attention; the reader becomes enraptured in this sensual world just as Agostino himself begins to take notice of it. Each day, he rows his mother out from the beach so that she can sunbathe nude and they can swim together. “Occasionally she would open her eyes and say how good it felt to lie on her back with her eyes closed and feel the water rippling and flowing beneath her. Or she would ask Agostino to pass her the cigarette case,” Moravia writes,
or better yet to light a cigarette and pass it to her, which Agostino would do with tremulous, painstaking care. Then the mother would smoke in silence, and Agostino would remain hunched over, his back to her but his head twisted to the side, so as to catch the little puffs of blue smoke that indicated where her head was resting, her hair radiating out in the water.
A handsome young man, a suitor, punctures the idyll, stealing the mother from the boy; soon after, a group of coarse urchins, sons of fishermen and laborers, will rupture it. Agostino is sensitive, sheltered, urbane. One day, this sort of boy will have to venture forth unprotected. He’ll get beaten, he’ll become the object of derision and pathological aggression, twisting him in such a way that he will lose “his original identity without acquiring through his loss another.”
Moravia carries the reader through the process, as Agostino accidentally encounters Berto, whose father rents rowboats on the beach. Berto takes Agostino’s mother’s cigarettes, ridicules him for not knowing how to smoke, and burns him with one. They fight. Agostino is “not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality,” notes the author.
It seemed incredible that he, Agostino, who everyone had always liked, could now be hurt so deliberately and ruthlessly. Most of all he was bewildered and troubled by this ruthlessness, a new behavior whose monstrousness made it almost attractive.
The great, unnerving pleasure of this book is to feel this sublime shift take hold inside Agostino, to observe him contort to face the new reality, to sense his discomfort and desire rising as twins of coming manhood, as defense and vulnerability both at once. His mother’s living sexuality, which he is forced to note as the summer wears on, acts like the opposite of blindness. Loss of innocence is seeing, finally, the wreck of adulthood. Meanwhile, the group of boys is pitiless and cruel. They turn him against himself. “The dark realization came to him that a difficult and miserable age had begun for him,” says Moravia, “and he couldn’t imagine when it would end.”
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.