Monday, December 24, 2007

Book review: St. John of the Midfield by Gerasamo Maccagnone

St. John of the Midfield is the first novel by the author of a short story collection and a children’s book. It’s a valiant attempt that falls a little short, and by “short” I mean 169 very small pages of very large print. In addition, the characters are not as fleshed out as I would like for a full-length novel – the plot is there, just not actualized as it might be. There are also two very brief short stories tacked onto the end of the book. It’s almost as an afterthought, as though Maccagnone had wanted to put them in his previous short story collection but didn’t quite have room, so he just adds them here to give them exposure. They’re little more than anecdotes: the first a disjointed story about juvenile pranks and the second an ode to a good dog.

The story is set in Michigan, outside of Detroit, and is narrated by Mario Santini whose son, Luca, is a young soccer prodigy. Luca tries out for a youth soccer club and makes the Rochester Crusaders. The Crusaders are coached by Bobo Stoikov, a former World Cup soccer star who defected from Bulgaria some twenty years earlier. Injured during his escape from Bulgaria and no longer able to play himself, coaching soccer is all Bobo has left. He is a wonderful coach, focusing on developing ball skills and passing techniques, encouraging the boys to play elegant European-style soccer.

In his devout, Slavic idiom he describes the positions with apostolic metaphors: defenders are like Peter, “tough and strong. Judas is a striker. He play[s] for himself.” But midfielders are like St. John: obedient, generous, smart. Luca Santini, a good Italian Catholic boy, is a midfielder, one of the best in the league. The boys (and their parents) quickly love the eccentric Bobo and soon the team is winning all of their games.

Trouble comes in the form of another soccer coach, an ex-con who is envious at the great team Bobo has built. He starts a smear campaign against the Crusaders, culminating with a false accusation that Bobo is a pedophile. The team falls apart and people end up dead, although we only hear about it offhandedly, which seems to be a bit of a chickening out storytelling-wise.

Interwoven with the soccer is the narrator’s own story. Luca’s father is the legitimate son of a made man. Mario is struggling with his mother’s building insanity over losing a daughter in a car accident years ago. He and his wife, Luca’s mother, are having difficulty having another child and Mario ends up unconvincingly having an affair with another soccer mom. Mario also has to deal with his family’s Mafioso legacy, his father and uncles using violence to solve the problems of the family’s trucking business. It is here that St. John of the Midfield breaks down - it doesn’t need the Mob. I suspect the lengthy delving into Mario’s father’s history was intended as character development, but I found it distracting from what I was really interested in: the soccer.

It seems as though the author had two good ideas for his book – the soccer and the impact of a connected parent on a legitimate family – but he didn’t quite have enough material for either story for a full-length novel, so he smushed the two together. Maccagnone should have trusted himself enough to commit to one of his themes. St. John of the Midfield would have worked wonderfully as a long short story by focusing on Bobo and his soccer team, with Mario’s marital woes and Sicilian temper as a counterpoint. As a novel, however, it’s not quite enough.

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