by Sarah Benelli
Pietro DiDonato’s Christ in Concrete is a powerful narrative of the struggles and culture of New York’s Italian immigrant laborers in the early twentieth century. Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale, in their historical work La Storia, state that "Never before or since has the aggravation of the Italian immigrant been more bluntly expressed by a novelist" (368). A central component of this "aggravation", both for DiDonato as an author and for his protagonist Paul, is the struggle to reconcile traditional religious beliefs and customs with the failure of that very same faith to provide any tangible improvement in the immigrants’ lives. Through Paul’s experience, we observe the Catholic institutions lose influence and effectiveness as Capitalist ones, manifest in Job, take their place. While doing this, DiDonato also illustrates essential aspects of Italian (specifically southern) Catholicism and the pressures placed upon it by the American environment.
The novel opens by introducing Paul’s father Geremio, his mother Annunziata, and Job. Geremio is a construction crew supervisor who struggles to improve his family’s condition, and even though he has been making progress, he still wonders how much more will be exacted from him. A religiously faithful man, he asks God for guidance: "Is it not possible to breathe God’s air without fear dominating the pall of unemployment? And the terror of production for Boss, Boss, and Job? To rebel is to lose all of the very little. To be obedient is to choke. O dear Lord, guide my path" (13). Geremio articulates the conflict he feels between Boss and Job, which rules his earthly life, and the struggle of his spirit. The pressures have not crushed his faith, but he understands the toll they are taking, and the possible consequences.
Moments after asking the Lord for help, the building which he is working on collapses on and around Geremio and his fellow workers. It is Good Friday, and he is only a few hours away from going home to celebrate with his family. DiDonato describes the accident and deaths in lurid, even grisly, detail. Geremio’s mangled body, pierced through with metal reenforcement rods, is held up with arms outstretched for his crucification. As wet cement pours onto him, burying him alive, he desperately implores Christ for help: "Blood vessels burst like mashed flower stems. He screamed. ‘Show yourself now, Jesu! Now is the time! Save me! Why don’t you come! Are you there! I cannot stand it–ohhh, why do you let it happen—where are you? Hurry hurry hurry!’" (18). The almighty wrath of Job is too strong, as Geremio’s faith fails to provide him with assistance or comfort. DiDonato himself was a bricklayer whose father died in a construction accident on Good Friday. His personal experience became the impetus for the novel and the rage contained within it.
Despite the devastating blow of Geremio’s death, his wife Annunziata does not lose faith, though she is doubtful about how the family will manage to survive without him. She initially counts on help from her brother Luigi, but the subsequent maiming of his legs in another Job accident leaves Annunziata and her eight children destitute. It is now the responsibility of Paul, at twelve years old the eldest male of the family, to seek provision for all of them. One of the first places that he turns for help, both spiritual and material, is his local church. There he prays in earnest: "Here in the church of worship I kneel, my Lord. You have taken dear father away for your own need...can you not send him back, O Lord?" (55). His father’s return not forthcoming, Paul decides to appeal to the priest for food and help. After a struggle, he is finally permitted to enter the chambers and see Father John. The priest has been at his dinner; Paul’s ravenous eyes see a huge table groaning under the weight of sumptuous food. He tells his story to the priest, whose response is, "But tell me, what can I do?" (58). He goes on to explain that he does not personally give any charity, since that is handled by a board of trustees, and that he can do nothing to help Paul and his family. He finally sends Paul away with a piece of strawberry shortcake to take home, and wishes him well. Presumably, he returns to his full table to finish his supper undisturbed.
This scene clearly illustrates the total failure of the Church as an institution to assist the real conditions of the Italian immigrants. The situation is not confined to the narrative of Christ in Concrete, but was an issue for the Italian community at large. Despite their entrenched belief in God and the rewards of heaven, the faith in which was connected to their strong and often limiting fatalism, the population was generally wary of priests and even the church itself. In La Storia, the immigrants are described as being "...generally scornful of all priests, viewing them as both corrupting and corruptible. ‘If you want to be rich,’ an adage advised, ‘become a thief, a policeman, or a priest’" (327). In Mario Puzo’s <i>The Fortunate Pilgrim</i>, an old neighborhood widow discusses the misbehavior of the protagonist Lucia Santa’s son, Lorenzo. The old woman says "Oh, he is sly, your son, he will be a priest" (143). Though Lorenzo becomes a small-time gangster, and not a priest, it is apparent that the immigrants regard one profession as being roughly as honorable as the other.
The traditional practice of the Italian church was to work in compliance with the wealthy and politically powerful aristocracy. Although this created tensions between the peasants and clergy, the system was so traditional that even though the lower classes may have objected to it, it was at least generally accepted and tolerated. In America however, the Irish controlled Catholic church usually failed to understand, and sometimes even tolerate, the "paganism" of their Italian parishioners. Mangione and Morreale comment that "The initial failure of the American Catholic church to reach out to the Italian immigrants gave rise to the general impression that this Church was even more indifferent to their needs than the Church in Italy had been" (327). In America, though more opportunity existed, the immigrants had the additional pressures of a strange land, language, and culture to navigate. While the need for material help was often as great as ever, and sometimes even worse, the need for spiritual help was increased. The Irish-controlled Catholic institutions in America failed on both counts, whereas in Italy customs of worship had at least been communally understood and participated in. Fred L. Gardaphe, in his introduction to Christ in Concrete, comments that DiDonato "...points to the failure of American Catholicism as a force that controls and subdues the immigrants’ reactions to the injustices of the capitalist system that exploits as it maims and kills the Italian immigrant" (xvi). Religion, rather than inciting the immigrants to object to injustice, instead encourages them to forbear and accept fate while waiting patiently for their rewards in the next world.
After Paul is rejected by the Church, and implicitly God, he decides that he must turn to Job instead. God had been in the Church, but "Job was a six-story apartment" (63). Initially, Job seems to answer his prayers. He commences work, confident that he will be able to provide for himself and his family. He learns quickly, and is proud of his progress. After finishing his first piece of brickwork, he admires it and thinks: "The Lord has listened to him...The Lord and his father worked with him to build it!" (71). Though the Church did not come to his aid, Paul’s faith is unshaken as he believes that God has brought him to Job, Job that can give work, money and life. Annunziata is worried about her young son going out to toil, even as she rejoices over his courage and the hope he represents. She prays to God to protect him, to Job to be merciful on his child’s body and soul. Annunziata is "...Builder’s woman and Life’s mother..." to Paul, "...her carpenter Christ, her Christ of hunger" (82). Through his sacrifices his is to be the family’s savior.
But this is not, at least immediately, to be. Paul receives only five dollars for his week’s work, his frail form quickly gives out under the weight of Job, and he is forced to stop working. Hunger once again becomes terrifyingly real for Annunziata and her children. They are confronted with the fact that Job is all-powerful, as is God. It can give life, food, happiness, but it also takes back whatever and whenever it chooses. It takes lives such as Geremio’s, it took Luigi’s leg, and it has taken all of the strength out of Paul, leaving him with even fewer resources than before.
At this point, with her family’s situation reaching an even more desperate pitch, Annunziata decides to that she must take action. Rather than going to church to pray to God or Christ, she takes Paul with her for an interview with "the Cripple", to help her seek assistance in her dead husband’s soul. The Cripple is a woman purported to have powers of communication with the spirit world (or "woild", as she pronounces it) for the edification of those still living in this one. Though Annunziata is a faithfully religious woman, when things really get bad she turns to the Cripple, essentially a pagan figure, to augment her prayers. This seemingly incongruous act is, however, actually typical of the southern Italian brand of Catholicism. Mangione and Morreale describe this Catholicism as "...based on awe, fear, and reverence for the supernatural, ‘a fusion of Christian and pre-Christian elements of animism, polytheism, and sorcery along with the sacraments prescribed by the Church’" (326). Annunziata is hoping that the Cripple’s "sorcery" will be able to comfort, give advice, and direct her life materially for the better–all things which the Church has not done, even for someone as faithful as she.
As Annunziata and Paul pass through the doorway into the Cripple’s room, they walk under "...a sooty wooden lettered sign, ‘Jesus Never Fails’" (110). Ironically enough, considering that if Jesus had answered their prayers in the first place, they wouldn’t be walking through that doorway seeking answers from a false prophet with a goiter. The falseness of the Cripple’s craft matters little, however, since she does succeed in comforting Annunziata and Paul, renewing their faith and hope. Paul is anxious to know that his father did not suffer in his death, and the Cripple reassures him by saying "‘No, sonny, he shakes his head and says there wasn’t a stitch of pain, and that he went to his Lord God with a clean soul and a smile’" (116). We know how blatantly false this is, but for Paul and Annunziata, that is irrelevant. She believes in the Cripple’s powers to speak the truth as surely as she believes in God; the words of the pagan serve to strengthen her belief in the good works of the Lord.
Despite Paul’s lifted spirits following the session with the Cripple and his recovering health, he soon receives a blow to his faith in God. One of his friends in his tenement is Louis, a boy his age who immigrated from Russia. Louis’ older brother was murdered for his opposition to the Czar, as were many of Louis’ villagers and acquaintances. Louis, who has witnessed ungodly suffering and destruction, completely rejects fatalism. He desires justice and retribution here and now for the crimes committed against his brother and others. When Paul maintains that only the spirit of God can do such things, Louis questions him closely:
"‘You have seen your father.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You knew your father?’
‘And you know your mother?’
‘And you love them.’
‘Have you seen God?’
Paul felt something weakening him.
‘Louis–haven’t you–don’t you believe in God?’
The gray eyes turned full on him.
‘There is no God.’" (140)
Paul has never heard or imagined such a thing before, but the idea, once in place, cannot be forgotten.
Immediately following Louis’ declaration Job re-enters. As God begins to slip as something for Paul to believe in and trust, Job increases its own hold on his body and psyche. This Job was "... A great mass of interwinding stone foundation walls lay waiting to bear building on its rubble shoulders" (141). Paul recommences to work and support his family, and though this improves their condition, it never ceases to wear Paul down. God is fleeting, but Job is real and immediate and tangible. It is an "...expanding organism–banging, groaning, thudding and pushing UP" (142). To it Paul is "joined in bondage", and from its influence he cannot escape. It is alive, it provides work and life to all of the Italian men in Paul’s community, as it demands that they pay daily homage to it.
However, as Job gives, it always takes. When the depression hits, construction slows down and most men lose their work. For those who haven’t yet lost their jobs, Paul included, Job becomes even more exacting than ever. There is more struggle for less reward, as the men try desperately to remain employed. Every day Paul walks to "Job Almighty" with his godfather Nazone through the streets of "New Babylon" (216). Though he is more tired and worn than ever, he manages to continues the routine unaltered, until he watches his godfather fall from Job to his death. A foreman, on his way to reprimand Nazone for slow work, tripped over a mortar tub and fell into him, pushing him off the structure. The foreman had been shouting at him "‘Y’bastard you’re slow’s the comin’ o’ Christ!’" (216). This is the final blow to Paul’s already weakened faith. As he sees Nazone’s destroyed body on the pavement "A flame shot though him. ‘That’s your father Geremio!’ it cried, ‘Your father! You!’" (219). He cannot understand why they continue to be sacrificed.
Paul dreams following the accident, looking for an answer. He dreams that he is looking for Christ, for a sign from his savior, but finds Job instead. Finally, he meets his father, who labors at Job. Looking to him for help, Geremio replies that "‘...not even the Death can free us, for we are. . . Christ in concrete . . .’" (226). Paul fully realizes how unfair his life, the lives of the other immigrants, are. They spend their lives praying to God and hoping for rewards after death, but he has lost his faith. Job is all that is left to him. Though he sees that eventually it will do to him what it did to his father, his uncle, and his godfather, Job is inevitable and inescapable. Though Annunziata is greatly grieved by his loss of faith in the Lord, Christ, and salvation, she can do nothing to alter him; the force of Job has been too strong. Mangione and Morreale write of the scene: "When his devout mother thrusts a crucifix upon him in an effort to comfort her son, who has just seen his godfather (a fellow worker) smashed to death in another job accident, he crushes ‘the plaster man wooden cross’ in her presence. Symbolically, at least, he develops into a revolutionary" (367).
While DiDonato’s message and Paul’s rejection of religion is in some sense revolutionary, in the context of the narrative it is also the inevitable result of a number of causes. Paul and the workers labor under the extraordinary strain of Job, a strain which is compounded by the memories of accidents they have either seen, survived, or know of. Yet, when they need help, there is nowhere else to turn. Paul doesn’t arrive at Job, doesn’t decide to dedicate his life to it, as his first choice. He only does so after other institutions, namely the Church, fail to provide assistance. As a result, Job naturally becomes the central all-powerful force in the lives of the laborers. It is to Job they go every day, and to Job that they dedicate themselves. As the Church failed to help them materially, it also often fails to help them spiritually beyond encouraging them to accept their plight as fate. Once arrived at this state, it is a natural consequence that Paul loses his faith God and the Catholic institution as they are supplanted by the Capitalist institution of Job. Though he resents and wishes to break free from Job, he sees no alternative, it is all that is left to him.
March 5, 2000
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by Sarah Benelli