APRIL 19, 2021
One obvious thing to do when you move to central Jersey for a year, nearer to your East Coast family but further from your workaday Chicago life, is to commence a grand and ceremonious re-watch of The Sopranos. If you have a name like mine – if your mother’s maiden name is Scognamiglio, with its two silent g’s – then it is perhaps something more than obvious.
This was a few years back and, as it proved, the timing wasn’t right. I stalled out after only a few episodes, though not out of boredom or disinterest. A few moments into the one where mobster Tony Soprano takes his daughter Meadow on her college trip, and they tour through the expensive private campuses of Maine, the strangest of storms descended upon me. I’d start to laugh (because The Sopranos, as you will likely recall, is nothing if not continuously and unmercifully funny). But for some reason instead of laughter what began to come out was this series of sputtering half-choked sobs. And then, in a moment, these became unchoked, whereupon I found myself dissolving into shuddery mists there on the couch, as Julie looked over at me with dawning alarm and said, “Oh sweetheart – what’s the matter? What happened? Are you ok?”
All I could manage by way of reply was to say, “Look at James Gandolfini – he looks so young.”
In fairness to me, he did, and he does. Also, a lot had happened that year. We’d moved, Julie and I, but we’d also moved in together, and the dumb grinning happiness of that was like a bubble rising in my throat all the time. If you’ve come through a very bad time, and then found yourself inside something considerably brighter than you thought was in the cards for you anymore, you will know what that kind of lachrymose susceptibility is like.
But it wasn’t only this. On the way east we had stopped over for a few weeks with my parents, whose summer had not been altogether easy. My father, who, like my mother, was at the time a blessedly healthy person in his later 70s, had begun to have the debilitating back problems that would result, eventually, in surgery. He was in pain, which scared him, and this in turn seemed to scare my mom, who had worked for decades in a nursing home and who, I thought, might have been grappling just then with the first frightful premonitions of a possible decline in the man to whom she had been married for 50-plus years. Things were loud, which was usual, and tense, which was not.
I spent our weeks in what now seems to me to have been an almost mesmerically adolescent trance: clinging to Julie, wishing my dad could be a little more temperate, my mom a little more patient with his disquiet. Be different, I thought, with the teenaged peevishness proper to middle-aged people returned to their childhood homes.
Which is only to say that those onslaughts of weepiness in the face of a young James Gandolfini, returned to such titanically charismatic life – this was not, even as it was happening, especially hard to diagnose. Like the books and shows and records that populate our lives can sometimes do, The Sopranos had sent me tumbling into the arms of a recognition that I’d have preferred, at least for a while, to avoid. Might it be possible to devise some less preposterous way than this to enter into the awful knowledge that your parents, whom you love with such needy and baffled intensity, will in fact one day die? I suppose it might. But I can tell you that, watching Gandolfini then, it was for all the world as if the nonnegotiable fact of my father’s mortality had come wheeling into sudden view there before me, like a constellation rising in a pale and terrible sky.
I cried some more and thought, I’m ruining this for Julie. This was not true, but one great thing about your self-evasions is that they do not need to be.
About such dire mortal facts there is now, it would seem, little point in evasion. It’s been a year of polychromatic dread, as any child of even moderately elderly parents can tell you – though so too, really, could anybody at all. Still, if by the ill-fate of lockdown you found yourself thousands of miles from those aging loved ones you will know the rituals: the anxious calls, your inveigling questions, the swift descent into dismay, bargaining, pleading. (“Please do not go back out to the market for better basil, please.”) I met a friend in the park for walks and we talked about our parents. How are yours this week?, I asked.
“They keep going over the wall.”
It was, we decided, entirely like being 17 again, though from the other side. Let’s try to be less impatient, we told one another. Only later would we fully grasp how poorly patience kept company with these varieties of plunging helpless fear.
But let me be truthful. The honest fact of the matter is that the story of my lapses in even the most rudimentary sorts of patience in respect to my parents, and to the whole familial generation of which they are a part, is not a new one. I had had ages of practice, decades. I was fluent.
Here, from the archive of these failures in achieved maturity, is one of the very choicest items, which has lived near to me over the stretch of many years: For the entire period of its run, the older faction of my family hated – and I mean hated – The Sopranos. And this, in its turn, catapulted me into such lunatic extremities of exasperation and invective you simply would not believe.
Talk about pleading. You should’ve heard me. So here’s this show, I would say, and people talk about it as among the greatest pieces of narrative art of its age, an end-of-century masterpiece. And it offers not just Italian-American experience, and not just southern-Italian-American experience, but East Coast southern-Italian-American experience as the veritable Rosetta Stone for the understanding of national life. And you’re all over here like, Meh, not for me. You have got to be fucking kidding me with this.
“Peter,” my mother would say. “Don’t talk like that.”
The problem with The Sopranos, as my mother had it, was that it was all so ugly. By which she meant the torrential swearing perhaps most of all – but also the violence, the offhand bigotry, the crazy proliferation of guns, the routine infidelity, the casual and all-pervading degradation. Verisimilitude did not enter into it. “Have you ever seen anyone in this family raise their hand in anger, your whole life?” my aunt once asked, in a way that rhymed with what my uncles deplored, in one voice, as its grossly stereotyped depiction of Italians: the mobbed-up guys with their tracksuits and Brylcreem and goomahs, duffle-bags of ill-got cash stashed in every crawlspace. “People didn’t laugh at Archie Bunker,” my dad said, not unreasonably. “They thought he was real. They loved him.”
Violence, vulgarity, degradation: class anxiety of the most garden-variety first-generation sort, you might say, and you know what? That’s not really wrong. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a left-leaning young man in Naples, and was permitted to marry my grandmother on the condition that he not take her to America. It was the ‘30s; they went to America. There they had four daughters, the first of whom began speaking English when she arrived at grade-school. (This was my mother.) But his was a union factory, and though a two-bedroom house in Stamford, Connecticut was not especially spacious for a family of six – two of whom, I would later learn, spent years mired in the unhappiness of too little money, too much misapprehension between themselves and their American children, and too terrible a longing for the lost Naples of their youth – it was a house, un-redlined, and their kids went to good post-war public schools, and some of them even went to college, and thereafter moved to nearby and whiter suburbs, so that by the time my cousins and I came along they had achieved, by this combination of luck and work and circumstance, a set of respectably middle-class lives. (In the metrics of the show, if we were never going to be Cusamanos, we might yet be aspiring Melfis.) This was our ultra-conventional white ethnic story.
But then here was this show, this enormous national sensation, and what did it do? It identified Italianness, true Italianness, with so many aspects of the worlds they had left behind them. They resented that, my uncles and aunts, and honestly: why would they not? We, their children, had never seen anybody raise their hand in anger, it’s true. It’s not clear to me they could say the same.
You might think this alone would’ve persuaded me that theirs was something maybe a bit more freighted than the blinkered ethnic chauvinism for which I was eager to mistake it. But no. The name they chose for their layered sense of misrecognition, woundedness, and resentment was “offensive,” and to this, in my wisdom, I took offense. I resented their resentment, their class-aspirational refusal of the call of Livia and Corrado and Janice and Artie and Sil, and again it’s not hard to see why. However they phrased it, they had planted themselves interferingly between myself and a love for the thing, a devout and grasping and evermore encompassing adoration, that managed somehow to be even more reflexive than their frowning distaste.
Talk about prestige. Rosetta Stone for the understanding of national life, I’d say. Narrative architecture of the nineteenth-century novel, I’d say, and more to the same effect. Laugh if you must but I promise you this only begins to capture the hypnotic delight, the breadth of longed-for and apparently irresistible affirmation, that came from finding so much of the detritus of my dull and suburban and resolutely unliterary upbringing transformed, like that, into the stuff of art. “It’s not television,” the ads should’ve said, “it’s high goddamned modernism.” The college episode that ends with a quote from Hawthorne? Studious Dr. Melfi, who looks for all the world exactly like my Aunt Nettie, walking Tony through the fundamentals of psychoanalysis, symptomaticity, the terrors of Oedipal conflict? Come the fuck on. Here was my own bit of feverish and disavowed aspiration, and it is no great wonder – though it is, for me, a matter of unexpired shame – that it came directly at the expense of a family that had been nothing but kind, nothing but supportive and unmocking and really just low-key proud, as I ventured further and further out into the weird seas of academic life. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard not to be unkind to the people who love you. But what are you going to do?
I wish now that I had had better purchase on something The Sopranos was laboring to tell me from its first moments, which is just that they had become Americans, my family, and that there was something unnerving in that ordinary, that longed-for attainment. It could not, for them, have had about it the dull inevitability with which it presented itself to my cousins and me. I think a lot about a resonant pair of lines from the poet Robert Pinsky, an exact generational peer of theirs, who says of his childhood: “I once thought most people were Italian, / Jewish, or Coloured.” He is speaking of Long Branch, New Jersey, in the early ‘50s, though it could as easily have been Stamford. Think of growing up inside those worlds, those wraparound enclaves. And imagine awakening one day to discover that scattered around the scene of your life were grandchildren with names like Kelly and Josh and Ashley – and also, of course, Giovanni. How would it be possible to have lived those lives and not experience the cheerful and bland Americanness of your progeny with some volatile mix of pride, defensiveness, and an all but impermissible regret? Call it, if you’d like, an unconfessed ambivalence. You would not, in any case, feel especially warmly toward a goddamn cable TV program that had come along and managed to agitate every last disquieting thing about it, no matter how beautifully or complexly or even lovingly it did so.
We are talkative and we are loud, my family, but this is not to say we have a lot of words for the knottier impasses of feeling such as these. We proceed by other means. Back in the days of that private-life cataclysm I mentioned early, my family was at a loss with what to do with the awful wreckage of self I kept trundling home to them. In the midst of one such collapse my beloved Uncle Joe came over to see me. He did not say, “Peter, I’m sorry to see you so devastated but I promise, though you cannot believe in it, you have a future.” He did not say, “You will never be a failure to me, or to any of us, because we love you more than you can possibly know.” Instead he said, “I saw this, and I thought it’d be about right for you.” And he handed me a box that contained a pristine pinstriped Mickey Mantle jersey, number 7, which I have been wearing to baseball games between Chicago and New York for more than a decade now.
So no one ever put the matter of The Sopranos to me in any but the shopworn terms of resentment and offense. I like to think I would’ve heard them if they had, but there is reason to doubt it. Pained and puzzled generational ambivalence? “But the show is so smart about that,” I can hear myself saying. “The two kids are named Anthony, Jr. and Meadow, for Christ’s sake.”
For only the second time in 50 years of chances, I missed Christmas this year. By “Christmas” I do not mean the 25th of December. I mean the weeks of preparation, from the extensive laying-in of supplies to the making, and freezing, of the pounds of cavatelli (pronounced gavadeel). I mean the week-before collective trip to Arthur Avenue to gather supplies, and the subsequent day-long labor of rolling the prosciutto and salami and cappy ham and assembling the trays of antipasto into elaborate color-wheels of meats and cheese. I mean the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve (with my Aunt Diane’s unsurpassed meatball sauce on the side for those who, like my uncle and me, don’t love mussels). And I mean the day itself, for as long as I can remember a party staged for 30 or 40 at the house of my Aunt Louise and Uncle Joe, folding-tables fitted geometrically into every corner, which commences yearly with my uncle offering a toast marking out the milestones (the marriages, the births, the deaths), welcoming new faces, and ending with a thought for the previous generation, “who came from Italy and gave us our traditions.” Salut, we say, and then undertake the hours-long ceremony of what can probably best be described as ethnic stunt-eating, which is all I have ever needed by way of religious observation.
A lot to miss, to be sure. In holiday quarantine with my gracious in-laws, I made some rigatoni, threw together a makeshift antipasto, opened a chianti – small compensations, really, and in truth no more than an echo of the months I’d spent transmuting all my feelings into carbs, the better to eat them. By the winter I’d taken to concluding each meal with a nice little decáf, like the 80-year-old nana I seemed determined to transform myself into. We become what we have lost is an old psychoanalytic chestnut, which is not less true when it involves pasta fagioli.
And so, at last, as we made the wide turn into the new year, I did get around to that comprehensive re-watch of The Sopranos, under new if no less charged circumstances. It has found me here in these odd in-between days, in which my parents and uncles and aunts – who, I should say, by the grace of god and lockdown and the frantic daily hectoring of their children, I have not lost – have begun to get their vaccination appointments. My mom, as I write, has had both shots, which is the simplest of facts, but also one of such bewildering immensity I don’t begin to know where to put it. What do you even call this feeling, which is something so much more unmanageable, so much queasier and more terrible, than relief? I don’t know, but I do know that, this time around, I sailed right through the run of episodes, season after season.
About the merits of the thing itself – about the bravura acting, the tuning of Shakespearean conflict to the rhythms of North Jersey, about the vogue for brutal male antiheros redeemed perhaps too easily through psychological interiorization, about the women, the whiteness, the clothes, the songs, the end – I am honestly the last person who can speak authoritatively. I see it all, even now, through the scrim of my family’s responses to it, a distorting influence for which there is no correction.
There is one thing I can say about The Sopranos, though, and it is this: It is not possible, in the pinched and broken medium of human speech, to overstate the precision and the detail and the granular fucking correctness of its depiction of the textures of that particular ethnic milieu. The food and the talking, sure: words like gabagool and ricot’ (which til I was probably 9 I thought was spelled rigot) as well aspiet’, stunod, gagootz, andiam’ – a litany of phrases that lay around the rooms of my childhood like threadbare furniture. Oh, but also: the salutations, the sometimes starchy formality, the infinitely expressive shrugs and smirks and equivocal half-frowning nods. The Sunday dinners, the funerals, the constant and constantly physical intimacy between the men. The décor at the homes of the older characters, dear god! Every least calibration, from the set of Charmaine Bucco’s scowl of disapproval to the glint of the plastic sheeting that covers Paulie Gaultieri’s armchair, faithful out to the last decimal place. There’s a moment when Neapolitan bodyman Furio, possibly flirting with Carmela, informs her that he’s bought a home nearby – and then, in a voice straight out of my grandfather’s mouth, he says, “I make a party, for the housewarm’. ” You may not be surprised to hear that this moment, after I stopped laughing at it, reduced me once again to hiccupping weepiness.
The Sopranos, I have told my friends, has been the aperture through which I have entered into the cavernous fact of missing my family, and I am piteously grateful for that. Maybe you’ve made use of something different – a movie about New Orleans, a Joni Mitchell album, or, I don’t know, a George Eliot novel. But this, for me, has been the thing. Like nothing else at all, it has allowed me to miss everybody – but in a measured, and semi-ridiculous, and let’s say a bearable way. Before it became too much.
And that I suppose is the second thing I can say about The Sopranos. If you’ve seen even just a little of it, you know it is a show that concerns itself with the devious ways we manage to tell ourselves things that, in the ordinary circuits of living, we cannot bear to know. Sometimes we do this with illness, anxiety, depression; sometimes with rage, or lust, or violence. This is how your life conspires to deliver the news it cannot get to you by more straightforward routes: that the mother who “loves” you, for instance, also regards you with murderous resentment; that the worlds of American abundance are made of brutality, of a violence being done to others, all the time, elsewhere; that the family is less a noble preserve apart from that violence than one of its principal scenes of condensation. None of this, the show proposes, is easy to know, and this is not even to speak of marriage, parenthood, childhood, aging, money, or sex, where things get really entangled.
I am willing to grant that there is something larger even than irony involved in making use of this show – where the gap between blood-ties and bloodshed is so dismayingly narrow – to come into glancing contact with just how catastrophically I have missed my left-behind East Coast family, with its messiness and misunderstandings, its confusion of generational tongues, its noisiness and intrusiveness and stubborn determination just to keep loving us, my cousins and me, in whatever configurations of life we bring back to it. The Sopranos unravels that kind of warming familial sentiment, even as it indulges it, and what it leaves behind something substantially more unconsoling. Fair enough.
But then I’m not certain that this is the whole of it. I don’t know that it’s only longing and love that have spoken up in those gusts of wrung-out tearfulness that, hour by hour, have come squalling over me as I’ve sat watching prestige TV from twenty years ago. Even now, even inside these weeks of battered and flinching hopefulness, there is so much else. I keep thinking of Tony, with all the menace and massiveness with which Gandolfini plays him, in those iconic panic-attack moments from early on: his face gone heavy-lidded and blank, as he lists, wobbles, and comes toppling enormously to the floor. What does The Sopranos tell you, if not that there are things we cannot recognize, not straight on, because if we allowed them into our lives they would short the fuses, blow out all the delicate mazy wiring we need to conduct ourselves from one ailing day into the next? I don’t know how to begin taking the measure of a year – an entire year – of illness, fear, abandonment, isolation, and death. I don’t know how to begin to reckon with the alternating numbness and rage and panic, or with the long dark months occupied by nothing so much as a clenched paralytic dread. I do know this, though: getting into some companionable relation to it all will be long and roiling work, and it will put to rout even the deftest attempts at evasion. No one will be able to say when it’s done with us.
So if, along the way, you find some song or story that helps you to do so, or that allows you to address all that’s happened with some saving measure of proportion or equability, then with Anthony John Soprano I say unto you: god’bless.