New Mexico author John Biscello has never left his native Brooklyn. His whole being is rooted in that region where he spent his young life. His collection of stories, Freeze Tag, grows out of him in the same way he grew out of the NYC burough. His prose is his bone and marrow, and from each page emanates the pavement, sidewalks, car horns, corner bars and greasy spoons that shaped his life and fiction.
The book begins like a shotgun blast with “The Bottom Feeders,” a story that is very much the legitimate child of Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr. Partying like there’s no day after tomorrow, Hank, Zag, Ren, and the narrator stumble and carouse through a seedy nightlife of strippers and plentiful shots — all the while singing along to Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” Only the narrator seems capable of aesthetic and moral sensitivity to the world — to the pleasing splash of warm rain on his skin, to the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge (“like an arcing bandolier of diamonds”), and to an uneasy awareness of the underlying violence that seeps into these male urban dwellers along with the booze and cigar smoke and cheap perfume.
The crowning achievement of this book, “Where We Tread,” depicts the return home to Bensonhurst of Emilio, a native son who has spent the last nine years on the West Coast as a comic book artist. Much of the story is anchored in his quest to piece together a full portrait of a deceased quasi-girlfriend from years past, Ilya, whose later death in a bathtub he hears about almost randomly. Ilya’s story can’t be completed by facts alone — even her husband doesn’t quite know how she died — but her life remains constant in Emilio’s dreams, memories of times spent with her, and most revealingly in an illustrated character he creates, a mermaid named Minkk.
In some ways, the narrative structure of “Where We Tread” is a sleight-of-hand. We are led to focus on Ilya because of her predominance throughout the tale. But it’s not really about her. What truly matters here seems to exist at the unexplored peripheries — specifically Emilio’s relationship with his father, a minor but important character.
One of the story’s most touching scenes is also its sparest: Emilio’s undramatic reunion — if you could call it that — with the father he hasn’t seen in nine years. There are no bearhugs, no special dinners out, no significant catching up. “Da” simply brings the boy back to his cluttered bachelor pad and makes him a sandwich. But there is a touch of paternal tenderness in this mundane act:
Maybe it was because he hadn’t seen me in many years, or maybe age had softened him some, but I was surprised that he made the sandwich for me, and didn’t say something like — Whatsamatter your hands broke, get up and make your sandwich.
His father even goes a step further and slices a thick Kosher Dill pickle to go with the sandwich, which he serves his son on a paper plate before finishing off two beers and heading into another room to watch a Knicks game. This moment would seem like filler if we didn’t learn at the story’s conclusion that Emilio had planned to confront him, to really have it out with “Da” about his terminally ill mother’s apparent suicide years earlier. But it never happens. Neither does he ask his father to go with him to visit his mother’s grave. He asks about the Knicks instead. So what this story is about, in the end, is not so much the flaunted Ilya but a casual acceptance of certain realities, including those that are encased forever in silence despite their visceral poignancy.
The second half of the book is taken up by a very long story — a novella, probably — that traces the contours of the life and mind of a young man named Danny as he deals with the typical dysfunctional family scenario: alcoholic father, traumatized but tenacious mother. The characters are in their construction close cousins of those of the earlier stories; in fact, “The Battle for the Ages” encapsulates many of the same themes. If the detailed narrative makes for a somewhat slower read, its play in later sections between the literal and figurative, between dream and reality, offers readers a kind of escape from an urban working-class life whose soul has died out in parts.
John Biscello’s writing is keenly sensorial, evoking New York’s urban geography and the lives of those who traverse it with a palpability that makes you wonder where you are when you put the book down and realize you’re not in the place where he put you.