Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Book Review: 'Dodging Satan: My Irish/Italian, Sometimes Awesome, But Mostly Creepy, Childhood' by Kathleen Zamboni McCormick

Dodging Satan by Kathleen Zamboni McCormick

‘A is for angels (and Alleluia). B is for bombs. C is for crucifix. D is for dead.’

New York author Kathleen Zamboni McCormick grew up in Cambridge, MA, in a tense Irish/Italian Catholic family whose contradictions were both hilarious (in retrospect) and frightening and form the nidus for her debut novel, ‘Dodging Satan: My Irish/Italian Sometimes Awesome But Mostly Creepy Childhood.‘ She has authored and coauthored books on reading and teaching world literature. Her educational background is both Boston College and the University of Connecticut and she now is a professor of Literature at SUNY Purchase, and has won national awards for her academic work--about innovative ways to teach writing and (no surprise!) Irish and Italian literature. In addition to her writing and teaching, she finds pleasure in arts & crafts, sewing, knitting, crewel work, and embroidery, claiming that ‘if I weren't a writer and an academic, I'd have become a weaver. The pleasure I take in fabrics is something that certainly comes through in Dodging Satan. The weaver in me I hope is also evident in the ways in which I write digressively and then work every detail back into the main fabric of the story.’

Kathleen has that style of writing that is both hilarious and poignant simultaneously. How? By creating a fictional novel that closely parallels her childhood experiences and while being a coming of age story it goes beyond just that as a dissection of Catholicism and its influences on children and adults who act like children! Read simple the titles to the chapters of her book offers a fine glance at the jewels within, but getting a taste of the manner in which she places words on the page is a better introduction to her gifts. She opens ‘Why is God in daddy’s slippers?’ with ‘The Italian and Irish sides of our family can argue about almost anything— the thickness of porridge, how much people can drink before they’re officially alcoholics, and which side acts more like “bloody foreigners.” But they all agree on the sacredness of the crucifix. An uncle on each side survived an attack in WWII that killed the rest of their platoons— all because they were wearing their crucifixes. I volunteer to tell the story of the miracle of my uncles’ salvation to my second grade class. The bombs were bursting in air. My uncles, years before my birth, were staring at the rockets’ red glare. The rockets were about to come down on them when they touched their crosses around their necks, and God touched them back. A heavenly host of angels singing alleluia held up American flags against our enemies who didn’t believe in God. And all of this to save my two uncles, Johnny Flaherty and Tony Alonzo. God is Italian. Or Irish. Either way, He was on our side. That’s why we won.’ And it just gets better!

The synopsis provides a map of the tale: ‘Bridget Flagherty, a student at St. Michael’s Catholic school outside Boston in the 60s and 70s, takes refuge in her wacky misunderstandings of Bible Stories and Catholic beliefs to avoid the problems of her Irish/Italian family life. Her musings on sadistic nuns, domestic violence, emerging sexuality, and God the Father’s romantic life will delight readers. Bridget creates glorious supernatural worlds—with exorcisms, bird relics, Virgin Martyrs, time travel, Biblical plagues, even the ‘holy’ in holy water—to cope with a family where leather handbags and even garlic can cause explosions. An avid Bible reader who innocently believes everything the nuns tell her, Bridget’s saints, martyrs, and boney Christs become alive and audible within her. While the nuns chide her sinful ‘mathematical pride’ and slow eating habits, God answers her prayers instantly by day, but the devil visits nightly in the dark. Scenes run the gamut from laugh-out-loud Catholic brainwashing of children, to heart-wrenching abuse, to riveting teenage excursions toward sex. Young Bridget tries to make sense of a world of raging men and domestically subjugated women and carve a future for herself, wrestling with how God and men treat women. Her Italian female relatives—glamorous Santa Anna, black-and-blue Aunt Maria, sophisticated Eleanor with a New York ‘Fellini pageboy’—offer sensual alternatives to the repression of her immediate family. She prays fervently that “despite God’s bizarre treatment of married women... some [girls] might still discover ways to have a great time without being a nun.”

Kathleen Zamboni McCormick, welcome to the arena of the finest in contemporary comedic writing. Her future is assured. 

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

Order it on Amazon today.
Two kings. Two princes. One queen. The true story of five aristocrats separated by time, culture, and circumstance -- all of them bound to the United States by accidents of history and left to hope for a tomorrow better than today. Prepare for a vision of the American Dream as few others have ever seen it.