J O S E P H M A V I G L I A
BIG TREEZ MUSIC, OAKLAND, CA
An Appreciation: Joseph Maviglia’s “The Sicilian Cowboys,”
71pps Quattro Books by V. Morris
Bobby Di Rienzo loves The Who. It is 1974 and he is a young Italian, born in North America,
sent back to his father’s home town in Calabria to get out of Dodge because a co-worker, a guy
his age, Benny died in a construction vehicle accident while the two of them were laying an a
sphalt floor in a garage. The death of Benny is being blamed on Bobby. We find out by the end
of the story that they were both high when it happened and Bobby ultimately comes home and
goes into rehab. In between going away and coming home he is on an odyssey to find some wild
Sicilian horses that his traveling companion, Russie, a travel writer (assigned by the family to be
Bobby’s guardian for the trip) wants to write about. But before they come home, Russie is nearly
killed by the wild horses and Bobby D., also injured , saves Russie’s life, and rescues the woman
he meets, Donina, from an old small-town pervert. Throughout his travels, Bobby has a series
of dreams that haunt his conscience.
Maviglia writes about Bobby attempting to understand why Russie wants him to have a go at writing and thinks what that might be like but does not understand what Russie is talking about: Russie loves Rimbaud’s poem, “The Drunken Boat.” All through the novella, we hear Bobby’s inner monologue- debating with himself-musing, whether he can actually write something? Trying to figure out how he might, wondering what is going on around him, with Russie as his mentor.
“Like, Ingratitude the vilest weed that grows. What the fuck it means is somebody isn’t grateful but beside it being a Shakespeare thing Russie doesn’t say nothin’ else as to why this is said, But to get it right I’d have to say it in Italian or this dialect called Calabrese-Calabrian -sorta Sicilian and I don’t know how Shakespeare would feel about that kind of work being done. I’d hate it if somebody says somethin’ I said wrong. It screws up my memory for sure. I stop talkin’ and thinkin’ at the same time.”
While he is in the small Calabrian town that his father is from, waiting for Russie, and staying with old man Zito (who has lived since his wife died in Bobby’s father’s old family house), he meets a soft spoken young woman whose father is friends with Zito. In one scene, she and her father come over to dinner and he tries to sneak around the house to see her alone:
”I excuse myself and step out and am smacked in the face by a sky full of stars. So fuckin’ many of them it freaks me out and I light my smoke and am almost forgettin’ that I gotta get around to the seaside of the house. But there ain’t no lights except the small ones from inside. I can’t even see no Big Dipper that I remember is one of the only ones I can remember back home. And with this sky like this I’m thinkin’ cowboys on horses must of seen this so I have this goin’ on in my head and make it around the house gropin’ a bush and the trunk of a fig tree and there’s Donina in the kitchen and I knock on the window real light for her to come out and she smiles like a rainbow. What a smile.”
Russie takes forever in Rome while Bobby waits for him in Calabria. (Russie has run into an old girlfriend.) When Russie finally shows up, Bobby figures out that he is stoned but they still go off together to the mountains to find Salvatore, the brother of Annunzio, (a friend of Donina’s father.) Salvatore will take them to see the San Fratellano wild horses. When they finally find Salvatore and reach the mountains where the wild herd roams, Russie (high and stoned) yells at the horses, and one of them charges him and knocks him down. Bobby intervenes by standing over Russie to stop the horse from coming down on him. Russie gets stomped and one hoof comes down on Bobby’s arm. Russie, laying “still in a grass of blood,” first thought by Salvatore to be dead, gets driven to the hospital back in Bobby’s father’s town. While Bobby waits for Russie to get treated, he leaves Russie in a doctor’s care as he and Donina catch a ride to leave town for Sicily. This is their plan: to get Donina away from old man Zito (who has been accosting her.) In the process Bobby thinks to himself, “Being with her is all the ‘writin’ I need right now.”
While they are waiting in Palermo for her cousin to come get her so she can stay with him, Bobby has a string of horrific nightmares, and, in the middle of the first one Donina hears him talking, and says,”Tell me. What? Roberto, tell me.”
(He sees soldiers guarding Italians in an internment camp and he and Russie are riding piggy back on a black horse and soldiers are closing in on them.)
…“Then there’s Benny! He runs naked out of the tent and into the snow with a work broom in his hands. He rolls over in the snow, turnin’ to shoot-like at the guards and out of the broom comes a big fog of smoke. It looks like white powder. I realize it’s cocaine. Russie starts jumpin’ up and gets in front of the guards in time to stop the trajectory of the broom shot and then gets shot and then high, laughin’ his ass off. My hand comes out wavin’ toward my body and the other is up signallin’ stop. I can’t control the movement and my hands keep on repeatin’ the action. Benny gets up from the snow-ground and yells ‘Yer fuckin’nuts ! that’s no way to signal! ’These guys‘ll kill ya without thinkin’ ‘! Russie yells out-‘Things get lost, like betrayal and killin’ your work friend!’ but he’ smilin’ all the time as he moves me to the lineup of detainees. ‘Wops! They’re wops’, Benny hoots. ‘Be careful ya don’t get shot!’ The lineup has no women. No kids. Just men lookin’ weary and worried, not even knowin’ why they’re in the camp. The soldiers catch us and our hands are tied behind our backs and they let Russie go cause he has blond hair. Me, I get put in a cell for trial. The older Italian men at the camp start cryin’. Everyone disappears except this big judge with white hair on a big gold horse points at me and says deep-voice like, ‘Tomorrow we will know. Tomorrow we will know. Tomorrow we will know.’ The trial room’s all red. I’m about to be accused.
Donina is lookin’ at me like I’m real strange but lets me catch a breath before she puts her hand on my forehead and holds me close. You can hear Won’t Get Fooled Again from a little transistor some kids is playin’ by the beach. I’m thinkin’ I need to get back to Russie.”
He does, after he and Donina wait until she can go off with her cousin. Beforehand, Maviglia puts Bobby and Donina into an encounter with a North African from Tunisia, named Ali, in which he gets to think about who he is, as an Italian, and what happened, under colonial rule, to the Algerians and ’Tuneeshans’ in North Africa as they fought for their freedom. Bobby tells Donina about his history of drug use before the Benny accident. Then Maviglia lets us observe him develop trust in Donina as she persuades him to go home and tell the truth about his past.
When he and Russie get to the airport to go home, Bobby thinks,
“We catch our plane and Russie seems cool now. Not jumpy or too laid back. Just clear–headed but a bit groggy. Smart as a whistle but havin’ to take pain killers. I lean over in my seat. “Maybe I understand the boat Russie? The drunken boat. Fuck-Townshend and the Who would love it if he knew it?!” “He probably does, Bobby. they’re a great band.” “The best!” I say. “The fuckin’best!” I say loud enough for the other passengers to hear. “That song Won’t Get Fooled Again. What’s he sayin’ Bobby? Know what it means?” “Yeah, Townshend’s sayin’ no bosses are good. Bosses are all bullshit!” “Na. Bobby. He’s sayin’ get some peace. Things change over time. Whether you’re left wing or right wing politically, you go tta move with the times.” “No. He’s no left wing. He’s sayin’ if the bosses get in your way beat ‘em up. You’re a left wing guy. You gotta know that?!” “And you, what wing are you, Bobby? What do you believe?” “I dunno. Just get outta the fuckin’ way with stuff. No left or right shit for me.” “How about being a worker? Strugglin’ at your job?” “I dunno. I know when I’m workin’ the crew I need a guy on my left and on my right to make the job come out good.”
In Bobby’s last dream, when he gets back home, he sees myriad vivid images and signs that he writes down for Russie in a letter, but can’t actually show him, because his brother, Marco, won’t let him see Russie (since it turns out Russie was using drugs in Italy, and Marco, who was Russie’s long time friend, and once saved him from using in the past, doesn’t trust him any more.) In the letter we see for the first time Bobby trying to write down what he has seen in his dreams.
…“The dream had you and me and six of us on horses. But there was a horse nobody was on. There was me, you, Annunzio, Troy, Salvatore and Benny all saddled up. We were all lined up and ready to go. Race around a big mountain plateau field but the horses wouldn’t move because the seventh horse, what looked like a big white stallion, kept goin’ up on its back legs and runnin’ circles around us as it snorted and huffed. Fuckin’ weird! And its nostrils kept getting bigger and bigger ‘til you could see it angry in the eyes. Then it started cryin’ like real human-like with soft sobbin’ sounds. And these soldiers from a dream before start showin’ up and marchin’ with big flags that are white with pictures of different rock stars in the middle. You know like Clapton and Hendrix and Jim Morrison and Lennon. And they start to whirl the flags around and ya can hear a whole bunch of the music all mixed up but the white horse keeps cryin’ and it drowns out the tunes. The soldiers turn with their backs to us and you can see them march off a cliff where down below are old Italian guys in prison clothes. They got numbers on their sleeves and it’s all the same number. One. The old guys pick up the soldiers who have fallen dead and lift them to their feet. And kiss them on both cheeks like my Pa and folks do. Then they all start dancin.’ Finally the white horse stops cryin’ and we all go to the cliff edge on our horses. We’re like real cowboys with hats and spurs but no guns. We whirl our lassos around and even holler out yodels. And then the white horse jumps way over us into the sky and disappears into a cloud but leaves its eye on the cloud…”
The possibilities for interpreting Bobby’s dream here, and each of the earlier ones, are endless, and every reader’s understanding will differ, but for me there is a coming together of the past-the Italian soldiers from many past wars, the immigrant civilians abroad in internment camps during World War II (like old man Annunzio, who took care of horses in one of the camps, in Canada, who fishes nowadays in Calabria)-with the present: Bobby’s beloved rock stars (carrying flags) and his encounter with the real San Fratellano stallion, the leader of the wild herd. This is a crowded epic vision in which the whole Italian people and Bobby’s own personal heroes are acknowledged. Bobby has learned, after meeting Donina, and surviving his encounter with the horses, to feel his true emotions. This last dream is a splendid master shot of the ’film’ running in Bobby’s mind and evokes great paintings from the 19th century (by Delacroix and others)- the huge canvasses scattered on the walls of the Louvre-and the films of director Federico Fellini. Meanwhile, the white stallion from his dream has his eye on him as he passes the church of his childhood, looks up at the statue of St. Patrick as he kicks through the late winter slush and snow.