A Review of John Domini’s The Archeology of a Good Ragù

August 16, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Kass Fleisher

John Domini can write a sentence.

Prose is the great pleasure to be found in this book, The Archeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father and Myself, a book that, contrary to its title, is not really about archeology per se. Nor is it about ragù, or self-discovery, or discovery of the hard-won revelations of a reticent father — and which book departs from autobiographical norms, despite the designated insistence of the Library of Congress.

Beyond a nod here and there, neither is this a history of Naples, one of the oldest cities in the world, and host to an endless succession of conquerors and builders — so much as an attempt to capture the aroma, flavors, and sounds of the city’s cobblestones. Call it an extended meditation on the Neapolitan.

Along the way, a virtual library of references pepper page after page — film, music, fine art, etc. Consider the audacity required to outfit an un-autobiographical autobiography, in a matter of a few pages, with references to Janus, the Sirens, Sophia Loren, Eat, Pray, Love, Mozart, Shelley (not Mary), Carlo Levi (not Primo), Brutalist architecture, Auschwitz — all while insisting, “I’ll find coherence in this crowded place.”

Spoiler alert: he does, and he doesn’t.

Which is part of the charm. And signals the chocolate-vanilla-strawberry temperament “in Napoli where love is king.”

To continue with what this is not: the narrator, who begins by describing two trips to Naples, one in the 70s (youth) and the other in the 90s (middle age), frequently mentions the “failure” of his marriage, but provides no detail. Subsequently we are reassured that he has remarried — a happy ending, it seems — but readers are not made privy to the development of this purported bliss, either.

Of course the Camorra toys ever in the background, such criminal organizations often looming in the perception of the Italian diaspora. Particularly, the narrator seeks to understand “the Italian man” — or, in this case, Neapolitan masculinity — and finds that such a man savors faintly of violence. The Godfather famously addressed the Sicilian diaspora, but Americans have fender-bended such tribes, describing the Camorra as a Mafia-type organization, even though the Camorra predates by centuries the Cosa Nostra of Coppola’s and Puzo’s imaginings.

In fact, in Domini’s only sustained autobiographical episode, regarding his daughter’s post-divorce addiction, the narrator becomes the Camorra, he says, not least by rifling through his daughter’s secreted belongings in search of pills.

Secrets reign in this text — as long as they aren’t fact-check-able by the bibliognost that is our author.

Only a writer of considerable moxie would interrupt a sexy scene, in which the narrator is being painted shirtless by an attractive woman, with a reference to Elena Ferrante’s Naples Quartet. He owes Ferrante more than a slight nod of homage — not for her portrayals of the mob, of which we get but a brief whiff here, but rather for her freewheeling narrative structure. It’s from the Quartet that he takes leave not simply to adjourn a possible carnal interlude, but instead, as he says, “get back to the volcanoes” that loom over Napoli and endlessly threaten the city’s existence. Indeed, he takes Ferrante’s leave to squeeze, into single paragraph after single paragraph, the dual, separate trips, 70s and 90s crammed into one scoria after another.

What keeps us eager to turn the page, one might ask, given such narrative interruptus?

Domini can write a sentence.

We have the sprinkling of something of a pidgin, with davvero and riposo and fidanzato scanned impeccably into English sentences, rhythm outshouting everything so flawlessly that that one begins to regret the use of italics. And we have the typical Domini color on our “John-journey”: “fungous green” blocks on an ancient building; the “sulfurous lunar landscape” of one of the dangerous volcanoes; but meanwhile, in a photograph, a “shadow puddled at my father’s feet,” his father looking like a “tightly coiled screen urbanite.”

“[I]t’s strange how well I remember,” the narrator says of Napoli.

Few memoirists would risk such hubris.

But we end these purposeful morsi of incoherence, like the puddled shadow, with the post-memory aroma of mobs. The Camorra in Naples, the Crips and Bloods in L.A., where the narrator frequently visits — another city incessantly threatened by, but stubbornly resisting, multiple menaces. We get, too, the Mexican eMe and Korean Triads.

So it’s everywhere, this tribe-based violence. Or so we conclude, in the conclusion.

Thus we might well find ourselves at one with the narrator in his final words: “I’m nothing without Naples, but then if you ask me, neither are all the hymns raised, and all the husks left rotting, across our entire vertiginous world.”

Dizzy are we in this world, then. As is he. But take Nietzsche’s advice: “Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!”

For whatever reason — and we, like Domini, are nothing if not grateful for same — Neapolitans quite literally have, millennia before Nietzsche’s exhortation. In this alone, we discover the Neapolitan that Domini seeks.


Kass Fleisher is the author of Talking out of School: Memoir of an Educated Woman, the novel Dead Woman Hollow, and other works.

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