Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Like finding an agate among river rocks": Italian American Immigrant Memoir WRESTLING WITH THE DEVIL beats the competition.

Title: Wrestling with the Devil
Authors: Antonio Russo and Tonya Russo Hamilton
Publisher: Gemelli Press
Date of Pub.: April 15, 2012
Genre: Memoir / Italian American / Italian Immigrant
ISBN 978-0982-102398 (Hard Cover)
ASIN: B008EWZ0TW (Kindle)

I had an outlet for my demons.
--Antonio Russo

Be not fooled by the staring young boy on the cover or the word "wrestling" in the title of Wrestling with the Devil (A Story of Sacrifice, Survival and Triumph from the Hills of Naples to the Hall of Fame) by Antonio Russo as told to his daughter, Tonya Russo Hamilton. This is a memoir with something for everyone, Italian Wrestler or not.

Wrestling with the Devil takes us along the simple-but-not-easy path that Russo took to Honor and the fulfillment of his Destiny. If filmmaker Martin Scorcese had not made a film about a raging bull of a boxer who cannot love, and made this story instead, it would have given American audiences a rare "insider" view of one determined man's journey from Italian boyhood to an Italian "American Graffiti-meets-Rebel Without a Cause" immigrant adolescence in Portland, Oregon to a miraculous college wrestling scholarship and finally, to a successful coaching career and induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

We are treated to a slice-of-Italian-American-Life in the 50s and 60s with all the warmth and family confusion, goodwill, great food and "immigrant drive for success" that such a cultural experience often entails.

What adds to this memoir's tenderness and heart is the equally touching fact that although it is told in the First Person, it is actually written by Russo's daughter, Tonya Russo Hamilton, who has spun a compelling, seamless narrative in her father's voice from what must have been hours and hours of taped anecdotes.

Before I cracked open Wrestling with the Devil, I feared it might be full of simplistic whining about how tough it is to be an immigrant, complete with heavy-handed scenesthat would  focus on beating the crap out of a wrestling opponent. Would there be veiled or unveiled bragging?  Or would his dauther sugarcoat the truth in an attempt to give her father a sweet memoir? No. No. No. And no. 

What I got was an honestly told story of a 10-year old Neopolitan boy who gets the shock of his life when his parents suddenly put him on a boat to New York for a "better life," ripping him away from their idyllic but poor world. The post-traumatic stress of "abandonment" eats away at Antonio for the rest of his life, and bedevils him. His parents and siblings eventually do join him, but by then he has had to deal with being shuttled from one relative's home to another after enduring a horrific voyage and arriving as a foreigner in a foreign land with no knowledge of English whatsoever.

Russo's demons stay with him for a lifetime, and might have led to self-destruction rather than self-construction had it not been for his strong will to succeed and exorcise the "devil" within through pursuit of his chosen passion: wrestling. After dabbling in some teenage pranks that verge on juvenile delinquency, he finally comes to a crossroads that forces him to find his moral compass.

Antonio Russo: First coaching position.

I enjoyed the humor, especially in his loving portrait of his mother, an awesome cook who would tell her children to "go play in the street" and who wished for her son what all mothers wish--that he get a good job, get married and give her grandkids.

Antonio as a toddler with his family in Naples, Italy.

Russo is fair in his portrayal of his siblings who also faced challenges similar to his own. His sister fared the worst and here the writing offers this poetic gem:

Catching a glimpse of her smiling was like finding an agate among river rocks.

For me, reading Wrestling with the Devil was like finding an agate among river rocks. An unexpected jewel amid a literary landscape that has brought us so many exaggerated or negative views of Italian life in America.