Talking to the Dead in Di Donato’s ‘Christ in Concrete’

In Pietro Di Donato‘s Christ in Concrete, twelve-year old Paul and his recently widowed mother Annunziata go to meet a medium called The Cripple; she will help them speak with his father and her husband. After waiting for four hours, they are granted an audience. The Cripple is ‘short’, has a ‘positive voice’, a ‘wide neck’, a  ‘a muscular body and limbs’ that are ‘fatted with the appearance of tough tubular lard’ and draped with a ‘cheap purple silk dress.’ After a preparation that includes sniffing  a rose brought for her by Annunziata, listening to a phonograph playing Indian Love Call, and rubbing Annunziata’s wedding ring, she announces she has made contact with the world beyond: first a woman, who is then pushed aside by a ‘strong’ and ‘anxious’ man trying to ‘break through and embrace you.’

Unsurprisingly, this is Geremio, Paul’s father and Annunziata’s husband. The medium offers up a description of a generic ‘Eyetalyun’, informs his wife and son that he is ‘happy’ in Paradise, that he does not want them to ‘weep’, and though he is not ‘ready for questions’, he has a ‘message’ for them: that he ‘never left you and never will’. Later, when he can take questions, he informs them that he is ‘content’, wants Annunziata to ‘join him someday in Paradise’, that there ‘wasn’t a stitch of pain’ when he died, that Paul’s ‘heart will get better’, and finally, that he is ‘always’ with them and has ‘never left’ them. 

The Cripple charges Annunziata and Paul a dollar for this conversation.

One way to respond to this little episode is to consider the Cripple a heartless exploiter of tragedy, a vulture feeding on the bodies of the living dead, one whose life is sustained by the grieving and their unquestioning, blind, irrational beliefs in a life beyond the grave. And Annunziata and Paul may be considered paradigm examples of the gullible, illiterate poor, their lives destined to be hardscrabble because they do not possess the nous to realize that the hard-earned precious dollar and the time they have given the Cripple would have been far better spent on the eight small children that wait for them back in their small, grimy, tenement home.

Or perhaps, when we read of how Annunziata and Paul ‘rejoice and weep’, how they ‘wiped their tears and smiled’ when told Geremio ‘hoits’ on seeing them cry, how, on hearing that his father did not suffer during his brutal death, immured in the concrete that poured in on him after the building he was working on had collapsed, Paul had the ‘weight of the world’ lifted from him and ‘tears dropped soothingly from his eyes’, so that in the end, he feels himself kiss the Cripple’s hands ‘in his heart’, we might find ourselves just a tad confused about whether our skeptical response is sustainable.

I am a skeptic and my initial reaction on reading this section was one of anger at the Cripple. But it did not seem undiluted. It says something for the power and emotion of Donato’s prose, of the believability of his characters, that it was so powerfully imposed upon by a siren call affirming the value of the life-sustaining myth.

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