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A Medley of Books Involving Anger, An Icon, A Sin
A non-review by
J Stefan-Cole

Three books came my way late last year that form a kind of medley of sin and redemption, Western style: Garret Keizer's, THE ENIGMA OF ANGER: ESSAYS ON A SOMETIMES DEADLY SIN; Jossey-Bass, SWEET JESUS: POEMS ABOUT THE ULTIMATE ICON, edited by Nick Carbo and Denise Duhamel; Anthology Press, and Albert DeMeo's lamentation, FOR THE SINS OF MY FATHER, written with Mary Jane Ross; Broadway Books.

Garret Keizer's book is a broad look at anger with references from history, literature, myth and the Bible. He's an Episcopal priest in a part of Vermont called The Northeast Kingdom, a name that conjures hobbits, wizards and thousands of trees, but in fact is a place of both backward rednecks and progressive ideas. Vermont, for one, was the first state to legalize civil unions between gays, an action that was met by some locals with boiling anger: "Instead of a deer, kill a queer," but also with calm acceptance. So the village Mr. Keizer inhabits is a microcosm for the rest of us: anger as part of the daily landscape.

It's not necessary to embrace the book's Christian coloring to benefit from its content. That tone is more an underpainting, and like any good underpainting does not insist. The author is astute about states of mind like road rage, hating ones job, outrage at crime, and even ire over banalities like cutting ahead in line, or failing to be understood by a dull-minded misapprehension of one's intentions. He also brings up the anger of Agamemnon, King Saul, Christ and Malcolm X. This is not a new age self-help book, but an at times frenetic exploration of the types and complex roots of anger. It's a sin the author freely admits to struggling with. He might even suggest anger defines him, yet Mr. Keizer comes across as spirited, righteously indignant and hugely hopeful.

This is only partly because he believes in redemption. He also believes in himself, and wants all of us to do the same. Examining his own anger is one route to a humanism that, to my reading, becomes its own redemption. You don't need the symbolism of Yahweh calling on Abraham to kill Isaac if you've ever yelled at a little kid, a pet, or an old lady. You don't need Jesus smashing the money lenders' tables if you've ever had a mysterious fee added when your account dipped at the very moment you were strapped for cash--a fury-causing usury. The image of an angry God or Christ may help one digest anger, or put it to better use. Mr. Keizer might even suggest Abraham could have gotten mad, refused God: no way am I killing my son. It's hard to imagine Medea murdering her kids because she hated their father more than she loved them, but the author takes a brave look at a mother's rage. I've often wondered if a follow-up has ever been done of a victim's family members who have witnessed the killer's execution. The word closure strikes me as absurd in such a circumstance. An eye for an eye. Does it work? Does it end the anger? I don't know.

This is not a book to suggest that a commandment or idea, like love your enemy, is going to stop an arm in its arc of descent with a meat cleaver over a lover's head, or a bigot from hating. Anger remains an enigma, but if you've ever asked yourself, why am I so furious, or regretted your temper (or a family member's) these essays are an enlightened read. After all, how many saints are among us?

The introduction to SWEET JESUS mentions an Alabama disc jockey calling for nationwide burning of Beatles albums after John Lennon declared the Beatles were, "bigger than Christ." The statement may or may not have meant bigger as in better, but it certainly meant bigger at the box office. Since that time we've had a resurgence of born again Christians frightening us (depending upon whom you ask) with the politics of the ultra-conservative right. As the intro says, Jesus is back on top.

Other Book Reviews:

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby
Wei Hui
Shop Talk
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel
David Markson
My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young
Fortunately, the Jesus of this wise, funny, reverently irreverent anthology is the Jesus of a humane soul, not one of a political movement. In the first section, Strange Faith, poet Ron Koertge asks: "'If you exist,' I said. "Send me/a pony.'" When Jesus then appears, the supplicant is amazed and Jesus admonishes the general lack of faith. "'Be reasonable, Jesus. It's hard just to take your word for it./'But I'm here. In your bedroom. Isn't that enough?'/'So is the pony outside?'" Philip Dacey's "The Feet Man" is an assembly line worker breaking down after nailing tiny Jesus feet to tiny crosses all day, "...knowing what you have to do to make a living." Jack Veasey's, "The Son of Man," is a hobo thrown out on the street, "...by Republican congressmen/who call their cruelty 'reform.'"

There is anger. Beatings by a father in the name of restoring a child's faith via an unleashed leather belt. Lucia Perillo's, "Cranky Jesus," who in spite of his rotten death never had to wait tables or work for a living. And her, "Lazy Jesus," who may have been bored with carpentry, and is not too useful, "Not that he's the type of guy you'd want anyway/on the bottom of your sofa, going up a flight of stairs." Though he's always a nice guy.

In the section, Jesus Is Just Alright, Barbara Hamby's, "Ode to Money," Jesus "...would not be saying to anybody, anyway/ any time, you gotta have money, honey/if you wanna dance with me." Hal Sirowitz: "We're Jewish, Father said...A lot of people still believe He's the Son of God/I don't know what He had against His real father/But if you ever did that to me/said you were someone else's son, I'd be insulted." With Thaddeus Rutkowski's, "Missing Bejesus," faith evaporates when death is stared in the eye after a weird accident.

In Apocryphal Jesus, Peter Jay Shippy's carpenter has a dream, "I've risen and I can't ever get down." There is a teen Jesus. And a poverty-wracked Mary who's had it with an immaculately conceived, dreamy son and a tired-out Joseph. There is "Matthew The Story Teller" who conjures up a Jesus character with ideas like, "treat others as you would be treated," and who is told it's his best work.

The book ends with Contemporary Jesus. Jesus as the hottest lover in the mind of a holy roller in Rebecca Baggett's, "Lorna Sue Cantrell, Singing in the Choir": "That night I lay spread-eagled on my bed, while the Holy/Ghost probed every part of me/those carpenter's hands/reach inside me and twist till/something knotted there came loose..." In, "Christians Killed my Jesus," Eric Gamalinda has Jesus accused of being gay, or a Jew, a "nigger," or a "slope," nailed to a tree and crucified all over again by a mob who then goes home to wait for the second coming. Finally, Kim Addonizio has "Jesus at the Laundromat," "Jesus at the A&P," "Jesus in the Nursing Home." Some poems fall flat, happily they are few, and no need to name names.

If Garret Keizer explores anger to find grace, the poets in SWEET JESUS explore an icon and find humanity. If the Priest seeks the divine through a fire-fed emotion, the poets start with the divine and redeem the man.

No such luck for Albert DeMeo. His father was a Mob capo and assassin. We meet Albert as a young kid who adores an attentive, patient, caring Dad. But inconstancies begin to rub on the boy's appreciation of his perfect pop. His dad, Roy DeMeo, doesn't go to work like other dads, in the trunk of his car the son finds wigs and fake glasses and other disguises. He also find a hidden gun. It's not long before his father trains Albert in the ways of weapons: "My father gave me my first gun when I was six...I was allowed to shoot only at targets. One day I shot a chipmunk...My father was furious. 'What did that chipmunk ever do to you?' he asked me. 'You don't shoot nothing without a good reason.'"

He takes his son to the Ravenite Social Club (yup, of John Giotti fame). There they pay homage to "Uncle" Nino, a Mob boss. Lots of "uncles" populate Albert's life. When he makes his first confirmation they line up to give him cash. They press their gifts into his small palm, adding up to $5,000.

Albert learns of stolen goods that his father's "boys" deal in, goods "fallen off trucks." There is prostitution and loan-sharking; at one point Roy DeMeo had the largest auto theft ring in New York City. The family gets rich, buys a showy house on Long Island, Roy becomes a made man. But by this time Albert is living a dual life, an A student with no friends, no sports, no kid's life. He hangs out with his "uncles;" mobsters, cons, crooks. They are nice guys--a bad guy is not bad twenty-four hours a day, we learn. Albert's childhood, his joy has been taken from him by his beloved father. Albert learns to compartmentalize what he knows is wrong from the deepest place where the love for his father resides. To his credit, Roy DeMeo did not want his son in the Mob. He invested legitimately, ensured college money for Albert and his sisters. Everyone was ignorant of Roy's darkest secret: the executions ordered by Mob boss, Paul Castellano.

This is where the book crushes any romantic ideas about the Mafia. The DeMeo's lived in a bubble protected from the truth. Inevitably the bubble bursts and the spiral down is a living nightmare. "He also explained the ins and outs of the monetary system within the Mob, a system that simultaneously benefits and enslaves its member. Once a member begins paying a certain amount of money to the boss each week, he is expected not only to maintain but also to increase that amount. My father had long been kicking in up to twenty, thirty, even fifty thousand dollars a week...If the tribute payments leveled off or lessened, the assumption would either be that he had outlived his usefulness or that he was pocketing part of the profits. Either was dangerous."

Roy DeMeo thought he could have it all: mob murderer and loving father. His ultimate depression, once he knows the deadly game is up, makes Tony Soprano look like a Woody Allen neurotic. What did him in was killing an "innocent" by mistake. Killing for business he accepted without conscience, but not a boy who was not involved, that he took from a mother. Finally, Roy couldn't live with having dragged his own son into hell with him. He makes the ultimate choice for redemption.

This book is Albert's attempt to redeem himself from the split his father cleaved in him. If ever there was a candidate for a book about anger, Albert DeMeo is it. If Garret Keizer makes a case for separating the criminal from the crime, for the righteousness of anger before forgiveness is even a hope, then Albert DeMeo may recover. Or as Sherman Alexie asks in his poem, "Eucharist," "Sweetheart, are we the baptism?/Are we the flesh and blood?/Are we the washing of feet?"

Line them up: Anger, Icon, Redemption. Happy New Year.

©December 2002 J. Stefan-Cole

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