If, in December 2010, you had told me that I would read a book in 2011 about a pool-obsessed man who laid stone roads for a living and that this book would definitely be on my list of favorites at the end of the year, I probably would have wondered what sort of head injury I was going to suffer in 2011 that so affected my personality and reading habits. Especially since the man doesn't even play the version of billiards that I know. He plays a completely foreign Italian version of the game. Nonetheless, the circumstances, feelings, and, ultimately, life of this man named Dino are anything but foreign.
Pietro Grossi has written a fabulously old-fashioned novel that has a very fresh feel to it. It's short, and he packs a punch, but he does so while giving us endearing characters about whom we care from the get-go. He does so without any 21st-century gimmicks (no alternating between first and third person narrative, no deciding not to use punctuation, no disconnected prose intentionally meant to prove how clever he is, etc.), and the result is, like the beautiful Van Gogh cover (in this instance, yes you can judge a book by its cover. Rarely have I encountered a cover that so effectively illustrates a novel), a masterpiece of literature.
The book begins and ends at the pool table. In between, we get a story so full of meaning and beautiful prose, it's hard to put down. Luckily, if you plan your reading schedule accordingly (which I didn't), you may not have to, as the novel isn't even 250 pages long. There were times when, despite wanting to read it slowly, to let the prose sink in, I found myself reading the way I often do when reading a thriller. I was practically skipping whole sentences to find out what was going to happen. Then I'd go back and reread them, because, really, you don't want to miss a word of what Grossi has to say. It would be like missing strokes of color in that Van Gogh painting.
You see, Dino has led quite an ordinary life up until now, and his only real excitement comes from playing pool with the man Cirillo, who's taught him since he was a boy. Dino doesn't believe in luck or circumstance, really. He believes in the orderliness, the mathematics even, that can be found by spending your evenings at the billiards table. Then, one day, he takes his eye off the ball, and everything he's ever known begins to fall apart. He becomes one of the two men (the other is his co-worker Saeed), so aptly described by Grossi, who,
...looked at each other for a moment in silence, thinking with some part of themselves that they really belonged in another story, but that this one wasn't too bad after all. (p. 153)
How many times do we feel like that in life, feel like asking, "How did this become my story?" So often, despite what you think you can do, that billiard ball really does have a mind of its own. Your hand slips accidentally, or you become caught up in some stranger's odd story, and you suddenly see the ball rolling somewhere you didn't expect.
Dino would tell you that all he was doing was laying stones to make roads, playing billiards, fantasizing about taking trips with his wife he'd never take. Then, one day, he found himself hiding a guy in a truck and driving him to the border, so the guy could escape prosecution. Grossi's genius is that this is what the story becomes, after seeming like it's going to be the story of a pool player's rise to fame and fortune. Then, just when you think it's going to be all about that man's escape at the border and Dino's role in it, it becomes something else, yet again. I was so sure this was going to be the story of a guy who came from nowhere and won or lost big in some huge pool tournament. I couldn't have been more wrong.
What it is is a real life story, the sort of story that makes your heart ache for the ways in which people misunderstand others, the ways they focus on the wrong sorts of questions, the wrong sets of priorities. Despite all that misunderstanding, the novel provides hope. This hope comes, not so much from what happens, but from the portrayal of the resilience of human beings and their desperate attempts to do what's right and to make meaning of this life. I like to believe in the good of human beings. While so many other contemporary authors seem to be determined to make us see the bad in humans, Grossi helps us to believe in that good.
The hope also comes from realizing we still have authors like Grossi, those who can turn a bunch of typeset pages into a beating heart, full of life and meaning. I'm very grateful to Pushkin Press for publishing such authors, even more grateful that I was asked by them to review this book, and am thrilled that I'm on the blog tour, which means I will soon be interviewing Grossi. Stay tuned for the post in which I try not to sound like a gushing idiot, and he answers my questions.