The Break by Pietro Grossi

As has been noted on this blog before, I am an eclectic reader. If I was dedicated and savvy about these things I would pick an audience or niche and stick with it (read the right books, connect with the right blogs, market in the right places, etc.).

But I am neither savvy nor dedicated so what you get is a little of this and a little of that – whatever happens to catch my attention at the time and/or whatever I get the time and energy to write about.

I bring this up because it has been a while since I have read a more “literary” work and particularly one that is translated (Fame if memory serves).  But when the publisher brought The Break by Pietro Grossi to my attention I was intrigued.

Here is the publisher’s description:

Dino is a placid, unambitious man. Living in a small provincial town, he and his wife spend their time planning journeys to faraway places–journeys they never take. Dino’s only passion is billiards, and he spends his evenings in the local billiards hall honing his technique.

One day, however, Dino’s quiet life is interrupted–his wife falls pregnant. This the first in a series of events that shake him from his slumber and force Dino to test himself for the first time.

It may sound like a cliche, but what I enjoy about works like this is how the author drops you into another  character’s world and mind. What I admire is the way skilled writers create this world and describe both the physical and psychological reality in such artistic and though provoking ways. In literary efforts the power of words and ideas come together – the reader can enjoy both the art of the sentence and the larger art of how these words and the story come together.

This is exactly what The Break achieves.  With an economical yet philosophical style Grossi slowly sketches the exterior and interior world of Dino. His personality and habits are revealed and in such a way as to fit within the larger world and his particular worldview. Despite the economical prose their is an emotional punch.

More below.

Dino is a man who keeps his head down – both literally and metaphorically. Sure, he hopes to see the wider world but he is also aware of the risk of broader horizons: disappointment and yearnings which are unlikely to be met plus the chaos that seems to rule the universe. Dino prefers to keep things in front of him and to embrace efforts that have a symmetry and a logic that makes sense. So he focuses on billiards and laying stones to make roads – these things he understands. Even as he finds out his wife is preganant he seeks to keep things contained; to adjust as necessary but without radical change.

But chaos can slip in unawares – in the form of being entered into a billiard tournament and winning or the petty politics of the small town in which he lives – and Dino’s reactions to these actions change the course of his life. He goes from laying stones – an artistic approach to life – to pouring asphalt – a chemical assault on the world and ones senses. Dino tries to adjust but the ripples eventually reach him and one seemingly simple choice changes everything.

Yes, with this chaos comes tragedy, but it also forces him to lift his head up – to see the larger world and his place in it. With the freedom comes risk but Dino is now willing to face that risk.

Grossi, and the translator Howard Curtis, do a wonderful job of evoking the atmosphere and environment of this blue collar small town. Amazing how the characters can be flushed out in a story of a couple hundred pages. And just as you begin to think it will all be billiards and Dino’s thoughts there is a twist and an emotional punch. It plays out with plenty left for the readers imagination, but in a way that feels natural in Dino’s world. There is a sadness in the ending but also a wistful hopefulness; a sense that Dino is open to more now.

The Break is further proof that you don’t need a thousand pages to create evocative and beautiful prose – or to create a compelling story.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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