Painfully aware that first novels with first-person narrators are presumed to be autobiographical, before reading from his novel Probation, first-time novelist Tom Mendicino assured his audience at Books, Inc. that this one is not: that unlike Andy Nocera, he has never been on probation, never been married, etc., and that in the book he was imagining the life of someone who once picked him up in a bar, took him home to a gated community (the first time Mendicino had ever been in a gated community), and where Mendicino tripped over an infant car seat.
Mendicino, who is 56, was an English major as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania (he graduated in 1986) and wrote a sprawling novel about a union-buster in West Virginia. One of his mentors, Mark Harris (author of Bang the Drum Slowly) got his agent to read it. The young author was, according to the older one, too arrogant to take good advice, and never revised the manuscript.
After six years of knocking around the country, he went to law school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and now works as legal counsel for a hospital and is a sometimes healthcare employment arbitrator, and is a hardcore Phillies fan (thus, on enemy turf in San Francisco, the Giants having eliminated the Phillies on the way to winning the World Series) as well as a “lifetime Pirates fan.”
The novel’s narrator’s father is a hardcore Phillies fan and once a hot prospect himself. A key memory in the novel is each of them getting a baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio, whom the father considered the greatest living ballplayer. Rather than disagree with the fictional father’s verdict, I asked the author whom he considers the greatest living baseball player. Mendicino’s answer was Barry Bonds, former Pirate and former Giant. (The correct answer, especially here in San Francisco is Willie Mays, Bonds’s godfather.)
He said that his parents were even more supportive than those of Andy Nocera in the novel, though without the public catastrophe of an arrest for restroom sex. The family name Mendicino gave his narrator, Nocera, is the place in Italy in which the family lived before migrating to the US.
The book has strong characterization and a plot of some intricacy, but what is the greatest cause for celebration is the voice of the narrator, Andy Nocera, who has lived the lie of heterosexual suburban bliss with a devoted wife, Alice. He works for her father’s company and is its ace salesman.
Flying around the country, he spends many of his evenings in gay bars. He functions sexually (dutifully) at home in North Carolina on the weekends, but his sperm count is low and when Alice became pregnant the fetus was defective and aborted. The lack of progeny is the only mar visible to others and is compensated for by their obviously enjoying each other’s company (a far from universal attribute of married couples!).
Andy’s life as a model citizen and devoted husband came crashing down when he is caught performing fellatio in a public bathroom. His father-in-law fires him and forces Alice to expel him from the model home.
Andy finds another sales job and again excels at it. Being back home with his loving mother s and in mandatory therapy (a condition of the probation, after which the conviction will be expunged) exacerbates the self-analysis and reviewing the course of his life to the tawdry scandal of being arrested for public sex.
His therapist ia a licensed psychiatrist priest (M.D., SJ is I think the order on paper, and also the chronological order). Andy chafes at the rather gentle regimen and never admits to himself/the reader that his therapy is helping him, but the priest is not nearly as hard on Andy as he is on himself. And he is not at all a caricature of either therapists or of priests. (At the reading, Mendicino commented on the differences between Irish Catholicism and Italian Catholicism, including in prevalence of child-molesting priests.)
From what I know of gay men who married women hoping to “be normal” or at least to pass as “normal” (which is quite a bit, having been a friend Laud Humphreys, author of Tearoom Trade, and of a sociologist whose dissertation was on gay men who had married women), Andy’s character and story seem to me to be very credible. The guilt to the woman whom the man loved, but not in the full way she wanted him to love her, the way she loved him, is acute. Andy loved Alice’s company, but longed for the love of a man (not just sex, but acceptance and being held). And like many a woman treasuring a “sensitive” man, Alice was rebelling against her oafish father. Women who marry gay men (or women whom gay men marry?) tend to be in some way socially or physically impaired and dependent.
The pattern is common – in life, though not commonly portrayed in fiction- but what matters most to readers is that the types come to life as individuals. And they do.
Concurrent with the year of probation, Andy’s mother, who has taken him in protected him after the house of cards of his respectable life collapsed, is diagnosed with lymphoma, so that Andy has to become a caregiver instead of a taker. His sister in Florida lacks the patience for the rounds of their mother’s chemotherapy and is only too glad to let him take all the load (I know how she feels, being the sibling far away as my parents’ health declined.) The complicated past bonds and present tensions between brother and sister are also convincingly portrayed, and there is some extended family relationships that come importantly into play.
Though I enjoyed Andy’s sardonic voice and the portrayal of his past and present life, I did think that a good editor (Me!) could have made some cuts and that a bit less of a middle would have been more satisfying, but the last part of the book regains steam and reaches a satisfying and generous ending. The novel ranks with Alan Gurganus’s “Adult Art” as an empathic representation of how some men who yearn for men get into the kind of trouble Andy Norcera makes for himself and for those who love him.