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Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: Go Southwest, Old Man by Mario Materassi

Go Southwest, Old Man, by Mario Materassi.
Firenze University Press, 2009.
Nonfiction in English and Italian.
Review by Debrah Lechner

Mario Materassi is a prolific author both in Italian and English, and has translated Faulkner, Henry Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, Stanley Crawford, Lynne Sharon Schwartz and Norman Mailer among others. Materassi has followed an interesting path in his life, and the flavor and direction of that trek is the substance of Go Southwest, Old Man. A Florentine, he migrated to New York and through several states before finding his second home in the Southwest. By several astonished accounts, he so completely absorbed the language, idioms and culture of the Southwest that his speech and writing became indistinguishable from that of a native. This has made his writing accessible to readers in English, a happy event.

In Go Southwest, Old Man Materassi mentions that the reader shouldn’t expect a travelogue, but the sensation of movement is palpable in the decades that are chronicled, and in the fluid interweaving of essays, absorbing interviews, personal anecdotes and memorable photographs. The book is informed throughout by a profound aesthetic:

The dark gorge, the towering peak or thundering waterfall are no more “sublime” than the cracked earth of a gray stretch of desert, the cone of ashes of a small dead volcano or a tuft of rabbit-ears weeds in a ditch. . .

For there is no order of beauty in nature; there is no hierarchy, no scheme of relevance.

In his anecdotes, Materassi wanders into a variety of situations: encountering mountain lion tracks; using a Rolleiflex camera in a digital age; witnessing an entire audience holding their breath when an eagle feather is dropped in a dance; attempting to create an authentic exhibition of Southwest culture in Italy (while avoiding stereotypes that the sponsors find marketable.)

Materassi defines his life in large part by the people he has known, a generosity of spirit that reveals itself in interviews with other writers of the Southwest, notably Rudolfo Anaya, a revered writer who opened the door for modern Chicano writers with the novel Bless Me Ultima. There are also interviews with Stanley Crawford, John Nichols, Tony Hillerman, Walter Satterthwaite, Judith Van Geison, and Steve Brewer.

These essays and interviews are only what is available in English. Oh, the tempting titles and familiar names in Italian! Yet unreadable for someone who speaks only one language. How frustrating. If there is one thing that would improve this reading experience, it is translation, if not in book form then perhaps on a website.

Note also that the photographs in Go Southwest, Old Man are not to be missed. The exposure and printing process contribute to capturing the shifting, transitory nature of much of the Southwest. Subthemes emerge: automobiles as art objects and decansa (memorials to those who have died in auto accidents) found along the highway are examples.

Photographic images of the Southwest are often best made at dawn, dusk, or on days that are rainy, hazy, or cloudy. Otherwise, the colors in the scene are bleached by the blazing light and overcome by the arresting shadows it produces, and objects are often rendered two-dimensionally. You can have the sun, or you can have the color: it’s difficult to experience both at the same time, except in person.

But reading Go Southwest, Old Man comes pretty close to creating such a complete encounter.

You must read this book! But bad news: you can’t buy a physical copy. The good news: it is published open source, so you can read it for free! The entirety of Go Southwest, Old Man free online, including the photographs. You can read it at Google Books by following this link: Go Southwest, Old Man from Google Books.

Readers may be more familiar with GoogleBooks, but Mario Materassi and Chiara Mezzadri were kind enough to supply another link in Italy where you can download the book in PDF format and save it, so you will probably find this the better option. Click here: Go Southwest, Old Man Italian Link to either open it and read, or to save to your computer.

Below is part of the email I received from Mario Materassi when asking where the book could be purchased. I’m reprinting part of it here, because I think it is charming and very funny. New writers, take note of someone who knows how to value their work despite the many ways you may be prevented from being paid for it:

Dear Debrah,

Thank you for your very kind email.

To answer your question, the book cannot be bought. I believe it's one of those mysterious (for me) affairs called "open access." As I am a total ignoramus as regards this new culture of communication, I am copying you (this obnoxious lingo . . .) an email from a former student of mine, Chiara Mezzadri.

Chiara suggests the second link. I have no idea if any of this makes any sense. The main thing is, FUP, or Florence University Press, is following the new rage (so they tell me) of publishing books that are not books, so they don't have to pay the authors (I had to pay for the 40 copies, one of which you received through the kind hands of Beth, your editor), so now I can look at it and say, with a shrug, That's my book. (Incidentally, I also had to privately pay for the dust jacket with which I tried to cover the horrendous official FUP cover.)

(Yes, and this aroused the reviewer’s curiosity, because I was having trouble getting enough information. So it was all I could do not to pick the new cover off. But I restrained myself, Beth.)

I am sorry I had to subject you to this probably useless trial through the thickets of my ignorance of the world in which I am supposed to spend the last leg of my existence.

Thank you for favor of the reply, Mr. Materassi. It was quite useful, and if this review offers more readers the opportunity to access your work, I will be very proud to have taken part in that.

All of us are involved with spending the last legs of our existence in the thickets of our ignorance, even if some of us are too young to realize it, or some of us simply choose to be oblivious. It’s invaluable to see an exemplar of a path taken through these trials with such success.

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