Johnny Boy
by John Califano
Verve House Books

"'And if I’ve learned one thing, it’s usually the kids are not the problem.' He paused and then turned, looking directly at me. 'It’s their parents.'"

Johnny, the youngest of the Caruso children, narrates this fictional story about his difficult upbringing in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s. Through vignettes of daily life, rich dialogue, and a strong cast of characters, Johnny captures coming of age at the hands of a violent father and a medicated, mentally ill mother. His boisterous Italian-American extended family looms in the background of this unfolding story, at times bringing celebration and at other times fuel to ignite fires of rage and resentment. His older brother and sister offer support as protectors, caregivers, and eventually role models for escaping by any means necessary. His siblings flee through the military and through marriage, while Johnny relies on education as a way to eventually leave his abusive home.

With a dispassionate tone that relies heavily on pitch-perfect, authentic dialogue, Califano's narrator relives his childhood with vivid recollection. In the process, New York becomes a vibrant hub of nurture and neglect. Family dynamics and dysfunction are on full display through family dinners, birthdays, holidays, and funerals. Not a word is out of place in the mouths of each Caruso kid as their hopes, fears, and frustrations are released in every argument and conversation. The fury of their father is unleashed not only through his hands but with his vicious accusations and taunts, which Califano conjures with the skill of a master storyteller. He has an ear for voices and dialects that add a layer of realism to these imagined characters. Each encounter propels the story forward as Johnny careens in and out of potential destructive pathways. The family conflict leaves the fate of Johnny uncertain as he moves through junior high into high school and compels the reader to keep turning pages.

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