“A Restless Sensibility”: Marcus Pactor Talks to John Domini, Author of The Archaeology of a Good Ragù

John Domini’s latest book, The Archeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father, and Myself, marks his first venture into memoir. As in so much of his work, Domini’s writing here busts through the thin shell of its genre. The book expectably documents a critical period of his life—a period in which he rebuilds his life following his divorce and learns his father’s secret part in WWII. But Domini’s knowledge of past and present Naples as well as his mind-bending renderings of Camorra thuggery, immigrant ambition, murdered nuns, and familial tenderness create a network of possibilities for wonder beyond the author’s described hurts and revitalization.

The construction of that wondrous beyond has kept me thinking about this book for weeks, and it led to several of the questions in the following interview.

Marcus Pactor: The Archaeology of a Good Ragù documents your search for roots in Naples’ history and landscape. Yet many of its most significant sections—particularly those which describe your father’s American assimilation—suggest that our real potential lies far from our places of birth. Is this tension as apparent to you as it is to me? Does tension correctly denote what I have tried to describe? How much of life is home, and how much of it lies elsewhere?

John Domini: Amico, bravo. You’ve touched on a very ticklish spot, one that shivers throughout the text. Insofar a memoir can have a plot, mine sketches a return to wholeness, following midlife breakdowns both personal and professional. Now, in such a crisis, conventional wisdom holds that a person ought to stay put, or at least hole up, working on themselves. Look at Cheryl Strayed, in Wild; she steps away from her life, but she travels alone. She does the work of recovery solo. In my case, however, I found the fix not only half a world away (Portland, Oregon, was the site of my systemwide collapse) but also in a crowd (Neapolitans are mad for connection, and what’s more I often stayed with family). The paradox shapes the whole, in other words. Inevitably it finds smaller expression as well, in dozens of exchanges and discoveries. Even at book’s end, after I’ve become the rare American who knows the ancient seaport well, locals continue to insist, “You have no idea.” The irony is delicious, but the aftertaste unsettling; it recalls the distance between any of us, and how a life that seems settled may suffer a terrible fragility.  

MP: Your description of your father’s immigration and assimilation is paralleled by your sympathetic writing about African immigration to Europe. What, beyond that parallel, has drawn you to these immigrants’ stories?

JD: This question seems to me an extension of the previous, reintroducing the unknown Other. I think of Go, Went, Gone, a magnificent novel of African refugees in Berlin, by Jenny Erpenbeck. Erpenbeck’s protagonist gets to know these survivors via a device from Research 101, a series of questions about their background, like “How did your parents meet?” Research 101—yet how rarely such questions get raised! And how stultifying for anyone with an idea for a story! Curiosity, the impulse towards what we don’t know, that’s what drives the attempt to whip up something new. Just ask Donald Barthelme, my old hero (or read his “Not-Knowing”).

Now, over in Naples, among all the things I didn’t know, few popped up so often, so intriguingly, as the ever-increasing scrub-labor force out of “the South.” Anyone with a scrap of sensibility had to notice. Their presence prompted all kinds of long thoughts, concerning geopolitics and more, and every once in a while I got a chance to ask my own questions. The tales of these night-sea voyagers cast a spell to rival Homer’s.

MP: I have been thinking over the past few weeks about The Archaeology of a Good Ragù’s peculiar associational structure. It is a dense sprawl of literary references, mob histories, job hunts, family anecdotes, ancient and modern art and architecture, and weirdnesses of the heart, and it shifts without warning from past to present, from Naples to multiple American cities, and back again. How did you impose order on such variety? How much of this structure did you plan, and how much did you discover over time?

JD: Maybe everybody else knew this from the jump, but myself, I had to stumble through trial and error to learn that composing a memoir’s a creative act. My first efforts to write about Naples took the form of a novel, roughly SF, soon aborted, and after that I wrote journalism for a while. By then I’d begun my bizarre solution to the troubles of midlife—running away—and I managed to finance some trips with research grants and publication in places like The New York Times. Also of course I filled notebooks, clipped Italian papers, printed off emails, and wrote literary essays on pertinent figures like Elena Ferrante (I first read her in the original). Also I had various books in utero, proposals for agents, applications for prizes in Creative Non-Fiction, all that. In heaps around my office, the material could feel as mazelike as a newcomer’s first meander through the ancient urban hive. And to find a form that worked, I needed to reach back to the time of the city’s beginnings, to the Pre-Socratics, one or the other of whom first declared “Know thyself.” I needed to understand that this was my story, no one else’s. I had my own Naples to map out, my own changes over twenty years and almost as many returns, and only that could give me a coherent shape.

That shape is triangular, as it happens, and I lay out the three sides early on, in the prologue (Part One). Later, they’re reiterated, further explicated; a reader never lacks for orientation. That being the case, I don’t think I should get any more specific about the structure here. No spoilers!

MP: The Archaeology of a Good Ragu’s associational approach is so different from the thriller approach in The Color Inside a Melon. Neither of those books resembles the playful approach you take in MOVIEOLA! Can you talk about this variety of approaches in your projects? Does your content govern your approach or does your approach govern your content?

JD: Man, you tell me. Seriously, when it comes to his or her own work, any artist is only another blind man fumbling around the elephant. It’s a tree, no, it’s a hose … Myself, I can discern that my mode indeed varies from book to book, and that I share this M.O. with some pretty good folks, among them touchstones like Frank Zappa. I’d add that such a restless sensibility seems neither better nor worse, intrinsically, than one that always gravitates towards the same, like Jane Austen. Both turn out beautiful work—but at my end of the creative spectrum, the impulse is more reactive. For instance MOVIEOLA!, with its brokeback plotting and fantasy, was a reaction, a rebel yell raised against my Naples trio, ruled by the need to Keep it Real. Monsters from the id, those stories. 

Besides that, I detect stubborn thematic elements in all the books you mention, like glacial moraines crossing national borders. In particular, there’s a running tension between the individual and the community, a quandary that defines The Archeology of a Good Ragu, in particular. Our narrator, me more or less, never quite fits in on either side of the Atlantic.

MP: Your sentences have a great energetic mix of erudite and street language. How do you balance these qualities within such a small space over and over again? How or when do you recognize that a particular sentence is finished? As a reader, what qualities draw you to a sentence?

JD: Another question that leaves me fumbling—and I mean that as a compliment, Marcus. You make me think, and I guess I’ll start with a stellar example, Carole Maso, “Anjou Flying Streamers After.” The title seems to me remarkably pertinent. Streamers of prose carry the reader happily aloft, gasping with surprise, throughout that novella (from Aureole). Granted, that particular fiction depends on a norm-busting rhetoric, all fragments and ellipses, and that’s just one choice. More restrained writing, with standard punctuation and paragraphing, can also deliver stylistic feats; among Maso’s contemporaries, look at Richard Powers, a master of the declarative jab.

In either case, the vitality and wallop of the reading experience has something to do, a lot, with what you term energy. Even the quiet ruminations of a Borges can exert Anjou’s pull, like a kite rising on high winds, hauling us towards¾ well, what? Let’s say a sense of discovery. We arrive at some sort takeaway, over a compelling prose sequence; we experience a sort of baseline shiver, as if some core humanity had been expressed. But then, to speak of “core humanity” sounds a little silly, doesn’t it? Almost as if we were back in a middle-school séance? It sounds that way to me, at least, and so I always need some hard knocks in the compositional mix; I need the clang and hollah, the busy street or the angry bedroom. So too, I’m aware of rhythm, of how the stresses in the sentence help to provide a payoff, though sentence length and complexity must take into account other factors, the context of the moment. Still, whatever the situation, success as a stylist always registers finally in the nerves and spirit.

MP: My earlier question about African immigration suggests your writing’s definite political consciousness. Yet I think you would agree that art must be more than political. What steps do you take to ensure that your work cannot be reduced to a political message?

JD: A number of your earlier questions had me wondering more or less the same. Geopolitics—you noticed the word earlier. Larger movements and pressures, like race and economics, colonialism and corporate greed, bore down in ways impossible to overlook, as I poked around old Naples. A downtown that stretches back 3000 years affords a rare, stark perspective for our contemporary ills and challenges. In The Archeology of a Good Ragù, my walkabouts often take me to reminders that Naples has endured apocalypse many times. My father saw his whole way of life collapse in 1942 and ’43, and nowadays, another world order strains under the load of people fleeing its ravaged and exploited margins.

Urban networks, the shared resources on which we depend, are a fragile construct, and this reality looms especially clearly in the oldest city in the West. The earthquake threatens constantly, throughout my Naples novels as well as my memoir. So for me, whether the drama is personal or imaginary, the job is to show how someone might get through their days and nights despite the unstable tectonics. All the books feature players on full alert, sensitive to every tremor, and so if the writing comes across full-bore, it allows anyone who shares these anxieties and small pleasures to dwell more fully in that inescapable question: Where’s the good life?

In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His second collection, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, is forthcoming from Astrophil Press. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist(b)OINKX-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.

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