‘Suffused with the nascent whiff of testosterone’ – Fists by Pietro Grossi

handsdI had never heard of Pietro Grossi before seeing this book, which is a slim and handsome volume from the Pushkin Press – experts in translations of European classics old and new. A quick scan of his biography revealed that he was born in 1978 and has won several prizes in Italy. His author’s picture shows twinkly eyes and a nice smile, also a marked resemblance to Mark Owen from Take That, (with added straggly beard). Apparently he reveres Hemingway and J D Salinger; I’m a latecomer to reading Hemingway having read and enjoyed several over the past year so it boded well.

Fists is a set of three stories about boys transforming into young men and their emergence into adulthood. They are suffused with the nascent whiff of testosterone, combined with uncertainty about what lies ahead, but also an amount of devil may care attitude. The three tales also increase in the age of their leads: from boys barely into adolescence in the first, teenagers ready to become men in the second, and those who are just the other side and no longer boys in the final one.

The titular first story, ‘Fists’ is about boxing. A nerdy rich lad does a deal with his mother – he will learn the piano and do his schoolwork without complaining if she will let him box. She agrees, but she won’t let him fight. He turns out to be talented and emulates Ali, being known as the Dancer in the ring. Another talented but solid young boxer, the Goat, who happens to be deaf, hears (sorry!) about him and wants to fight – it will be match of their lives.

Told entirely in Dancer’s voice, this is pure boy’s own stuff. It catches the rhythm of the gym, the banter between the coaches, the tension of the fight and the euphoria of a well-aimed punch. I always feel that I shouldn’t enjoy boxing, yet you can get caught up in the sheer primeval thrill of it all. If the boxing was Hemingway, the throwaway last paragraph was very much the sort of thing Holden Caulfield would have said.

‘Horses’ is next, in which a father gets his own back on two naughty teenage brothers by giving them each a horse to look after. While Natan immediately sees his horse purely as a means of escape, Daniel is more pragmatic and decides to learn about the creatures.

“Dad, we never asked for horses,” Natan said. … “Well now you have them,” their father said. “So you’d better take care of them, I don’t have time for any more of your nonsense.”

… The two boys stood there, side by side, not knowing what to say or do, both feeling suddenly as if there was a dead weight on their backs.

Natan spat on the gravel and move his tongue over his teeth. “Fuck,” he said, twisting his neck slightly to one side.

… It’s always the same: you don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it. That was what Daniel thought years later, whenever he remembered that moment.

Daniel soon becomes an expert, and when he buys a sick horse for a song that was otherwise going to the abattoir and then cures it, little does he know that the previous owner will feel cheated. Daniel learns a lesson from the school of hard knocks, and in doing so earns the respect of his brother.

In the final story ‘The Monkey’, Nico gets a call from the sister of his childhood friend Piero, asking him to come home and visit her brother who has suddenly starting acting like a monkey. Nico, while not convinced about the monkey business, is lured there by thoughts of seeing Maria again, rather than going to Naples to sort out his relationship with his girlfriend. When he gets home, he finds his parents are acting rather differently since he’s left home, and that Piero is indeed becoming a monkey.

“Piero has started acting like a monkey.”

“Mm,” said Nico’s mother. “How nice.”

Nico gave his mother a puzzled look. “Not really,” he said.

“Oh,” his mother said. Then she stopped for a moment. “I’m sorry, in what way?”

“Some time this summer he suddenly flipped and started acting like a monkey.”

“What do you mean, ‘like a monkey’?”

“Like a monkey: he crouches on the ground, grunts and smiles in a lopsided way like a chimpanzee.”

Nico’s mother looked at her son with her mouth open in surprise, and Nico caught himself thinking that it was her most genuine expression since she had opened the door. Then she started stirring the vegetables again.

“I always said he was a strange boy,” she said.

Nico’s reactions feel very real, from his initial selfishness to his studied ambivalence later rather than answer the questions his friend’s condition generates. His parents, who are enjoying their empty nest too much, also confuse him. There’s only one solution…

Any Cop?: In these three stories, Grossi captures boys’ youthful exuberance and transition into more serious young men looking for their place in the world perfectly, aided by a slick and witty translation – the dialogue is particularly strong. He’s picked his heroes well, and produced a dramatic and entertaining set of tales that make him an author to look out for in the future. It’s certainly inspired me to read more Hemingway, and I may have to revisit Catcher in the Rye which I haven’t read since I was a teenager too. is next, in which a father gets his own back on two naughty teenage brothers by giving them each a horse to look after. While Natan immediately sees his horse purely as a means of escape, Daniel is more pragmatic and decides to learn about the creatures.

Annabel Gaskell

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