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In the autobiographical novel, The Story of a Bad Boy, Thomas Bailey Aldrich recounts his adventures when he was a boy growing up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the 1840s. And now along comes Charles Reis Felix with Tony: A New England Boyhood, his autobiographical novel about growing up in Gaw (New Bedford), Massachusetts, in the 1930s, almost a century later. But there are sharp differences between the two novels. Instead of a Yankee in a small town, we have a Portuguese boy, Tony Alfama, in an industrial city. Felix presents a rounded-out picture of Tony. You see Tony at home with his mother. You see him with the gang on the street. You see him at school. You see him looking for work in the last chapter. But most of all you see him with his best friend Lommy as they explore the city, doing things that require no money, watching a baseball game, watching girls bowl at the bowling alley, watching girls sunbathe at Lindamar Beach, watching the vaudeville acts on a Saturday night from the doorway of Cozy’s Cafe, watching the hula-hula dancers and “the only living her-MAW-phro-dite in the world” give short demonstrations at the carnival. Raging hormones play a major role in the novel. Tony and Lommy are drawn to the eternal magnet of woman. Determined to have a sexual experience, they set out on a quest to find a girl or woman who will accommodate them. When they finally find her lying on the sand of Lindamar Beach one dark night, it does not end the way they had expected.
With unblinking honesty, Felix examines a life lived. He recaptures a time and place in history that is receding ever more distant from us. The argument could be made that the second main character in the novel is the city of Gaw itself. Despite his seriousness, Felix is playful at times and manages to find humor in many situations.
Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934 is the story of an election for mayor in a Massachusetts mill town in 1934 as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old Portuguese boy, Seraphin. The incumbent, a Yankee, is challenged by candidates from five different ethnic groups—Irish, French Canadian, Polish, Portuguese, and Jewish. A portrait of each candidate is subtly drawn and we meet campaign workers like Teddy, who has enlisted to help secure a teaching position for his daughter, and Jimmy, a numbers runner who proudly passes out cards announcing his appointment as Assistant Campaign Manager, North End.
But the novel is more than just the story of an election. The specter of the Depression hovers over every scene. Laura, Seraphin’s big sister, describes her job as a fruit-store clerk in every excruciatingly painful detail. And the allure of America is always present for Seraphin in his desire and longing to lead an American life. America also affects the remarkable Secundo B. Alves, the Portuguese candidate. Secundo’s memories of the Azores are honest, authentic, and touching. But when he is defeated in the primary, he quickly bounces back as a supporter of the Frenchman’s candidacy and rewrites his Vasco Da Gama imagery. Secundo is showing the adaptability it takes to succeed in America. Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934 is a valuable historical document and an artistic triumph.
Through a Portagee Gate is both an autobiography and a biography. It gives a remarkably honest self-portrait and an endearing tribute to the author’s father, a Portuguese immigrant cobbler who came to America in 1915. The narrative reveals a deep desire to escape the confines of the immigrant, ethnic world, while also acknowledging a keen nostalgia about one’s past, a need to remember and pay tribute to those who come before us. This Felix accomplishes through unforgettable dialogue and vivid characterizations worthy of Steinbeck, a prose, sometimes poignant, at other times hilarious, that strips human experience to its bare and powerful elements.
Crossing the Sauer is a tough, vivid, honest, and tautly written memoir of advancing through Germany with Patton’s Third Army. Join Charley Felix and his Fifth Division mates on a tour of duty with characters worthy of M*A*S*H* or Catch-22: raconteur Berseglaria, bombastic Major Pusey, happy-to-be-alive Harry Folenius, hot-headed Hillbilly, and more. We are carried along through the terror of the assault platoon, the fatigue of days under constant shelling, and the incoherent madness of life at the front. Felix is writing not of history or (usually) of heroism, but of war at a personal level.
By turns hilarious and poignant, grim and inspiring, Crossing the Sauer bears the earmarks of a classic.