Picks and Pans Review: Unto the Sons

updated 03/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Gay Talese

If you read this book, you'll see why Gay Talese can't swim. It's the pirates. And the invaders. And the malaria. These were the things that discouraged his ancestors from enjoying the Mediterranean waters when they lived in the town of Maida on the toe of the Italian boot. Talese's father, drawn to the sea but wary of it, settled in Ocean City, N.J., a block from the Atlantic, and never went into the water or took his children to romp in the surf.

Romping, in any event, is not dignified. And dignity—particularly the search for survival with dignity—is at the heart of this meticulous and mellifluously written saga of the Talese family's peasant roots, hopeful immigration and canny adaptation to America.

The story swirls around World War II—Talese's youth. One of the few Catholics (from the only Italian family) in an arid and strict Methodist town. Gaetano "Gay" Talese grew up an observant loner, sensitive to ironies and ambiguities. Gay's father, Joseph, a tailor, stood shore patrol while blood relatives fought against America in the Italian Army. Gay was never certain for whom to root.

Sons is a dazzling self-examination on a large canvas. Perhaps nobody but Talese, a demon for research and a natural storyteller, could have pulled it off. Like his histories of The New York Times (The Kingdom and the Power, 1969) and the Mafia (Honor Thy Father, 1971), as well as his steamy peek into the sexual revolution (Thy Neighbor's Wife, 1980), Unto the Sons is thick with revealing incident and colorful character.

A lesson about the inventiveness of survival, for instance, is contained in a story about the apprenticeship of the author's father in a tailor shop in his native Maida. Finishing a custom suit for an uomo rispettato—"a man of respect," or mafioso—Joseph accidentally cuts a leg of the trousers. With the mafioso due imminently, the shop owner cuts the other leg to match the first and stitches both with decorative seams, then orders his tailors to alter their own trousers to match. Pronouncing this the latest fashion rage, he presents the suit to the mafioso, who declares the tailor a "maestro."

Such stories are absorbed by the children of immigrants like the shapes and faces in old family portraits are absorbed. It is, therefore, no accident that the son of the hardworking tailor spends years bent over a typewriter, stitching stories into long, exquisitely tailored books. (Knopf, $22)

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