“…how to become a woman with a quiet life, with a husband who leaves only when he dies” is a line in Anna Solomon’s “Lobster Mafia” that appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of The Georgia Reviewand has now been reprinted to celebrate the 2012 series of One City One Story for the Boston Book Festival. The preceding link provides readers several language options for downloading “Lobster Mafia”
Aristotle is not the person most people, including the author, would think of when reading this short story; but the ancient philosopher said that a story should have a beginning, middle, and an end; and that most stories are some form of a journey for the characters within and for the reader without. This story has the past, interim, and ends with the double redundant potential future, for truth, for redemption, and the possibility of fulfillment for a woman’s unlived life, a possible transmission from the main character, a mature woman, to a young neighborhood girl who had come to visit the “good witch” and write a school report, while getting de-skunked. Skunk spray may sound like a funny premise, but it is not.
In reading the story I felt odd distractions and weird associations running through my own mind. I turned ten years old later that year. I remember The Blizzard. The “Blizzard” is the past event that dominates the trajectory of this short story. A group of men, the lobster mafia, go out on their boats and make an irrevocable decision during the snowstorm. I won’t tell you what happened. This is my own experience of The Blizzard of ’78: I recall being on the passenger side of my parent’s Cadillac, off to get food from the store up the long treacherous hill, and remember vividly how that yacht of a car weakly negotiated the slipping and sliding of the snow; but as a child the most exhilarating yet frightening part of that journey for me on the blanketed road was knowing that we were drifting and driving on the wrong side of the road, not because we had intended to because we had ended up there by circumstance. It was my first metaphor for life.
Another tangent that unraveled for me while I was reading “Lobster Mafia” was a realization that comes with age and experience about loyalty, about what it was to grow up in a close-knit ethnic neighborhood. Here in this story a married couple and their friends live out their lives north of Boston. She is from the Italian North End where marriage rescued her from “crowded, garlic-stinking streets, from family, from spinsterhood, from tackiness.” Those “Remember When” emails that I have received over the years went through my mind, the ones that are both Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, where life was obnoxiously wholesome, neighborhoods were safe from poisoned candy, pedophiles, costs were low, and took responsibility for his actions and respected the teacher and their elders, yet somehow, it all went horribly wrong; and in does in this story. Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
With serious scrutiny and honesty those “Remember When” moments might have been a bygone reality for some people, but I find them sinister because I don’t see people of color, unless they are a janitor or help staff. I don’t see any cultural allusions that denote the struggles I came to understand later in life: the well-dressed woman off to work for less money than her male counterpart, or the returning Vietnam vet trying to integrate back into society. “Remember When” is in reality a false-flag projection of what should be but never was for many of us. The truth is life is a struggle for all of us. What has been lost is empathy and compassion, if they existed in the first place.
In my reading of “Lobster Mafia,” I had projections of my own, based on my own life experiences and observations; and I think this is the mark of great literature because it distracts, resonates, and resolves difficult emotions and experiences. The “Mafia” element of the story is the demand of loyalty, silence and fealty to an unspoken code that originates in neighborhoods.
It is the bond and complicity of omertà seen in numerous Italian-American mafia movies. For other ethnic groups, it could be the C-town Irish of The Town, based on the Chuck Hogan novel The Prince of Thieves, in which you cheer for the bad guys, knowing that they are bad, but that they stand for something, and if they didn’t stand for that inexplicable bond of friendship then they’d be nothing. In Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale, the hardworking father can’t compete against the seductive allure of the local mafia thug who, in his own twisted way, tries to be a father to the young man. In Mean Streets, two losers, loyal and spell-bound to the parochial shtick of their neighborhood mores, know nothing else in life but their neighborhood streets and literally don’t know their way out to save their own lives. Their driving around and around is the metaphor for their misguided lives. Loyalty is supposed to be above all else right and admirable, but it is often ignorant and tragic.
When I reread Solomon’s story I felt a stoical admiration for her prose. William Trevor came quickly to mind as an example of a male writer who writes of clustered lives, familial bonds and feuds, and intimate stories revolving around couples, their marriages, and life-altering events. “Lobster Mafia” is redolent with quiet poetic but arresting phrases. When a coffin is moved through a window because there is no room through the door, the main character says, “I hadn’t thought to ask how the dead get out when there is room for birthing but none for dying.” In observing a young girl, “I could see the snail of her bellybutton.” There is the stark awareness of life’s potential violence in the mundane when she notices that “the porcelain claws…this wilderness, for the place they washed.”