Lives Entwined, Review of Sebastiano’s Vine by Carmelo Militano

“Why this story?” They are the first words of Sebastiano’s Vine by Carmelo Militano (Ekstasis Editions, 2013), and the first words uttered by the main character and narrator, Michael Filo. It is a question that may have many answers, or no answer at all – a question that brings clearer meaning to a life, or it does not. For readers it is the journey, the exploration of Michael Filo’s life, that will matter. It is the journey we are all taking.

Sebastiano’s Vine is a story of desire, rebellion, betrayal and guilt evoked through the memories and reflections of Michael Filo, born in Italy and come to manhood in the cold light of Winnipeg, as he attempts to make sense of his life. It is a life spun from the delicate threads of what is known, and unknown, spoken and unspoken – a life where the past and present entwine, bound by family traditions, both embraced and rebelled against.

The hopes and desires of Michael Filo’s friends, lovers, and family ripen in places as various as sun-drenched Calabria, the frozen streets of Winnipeg, and ruins on Mount Parnassus. Michael’s reveries and acquired tales of the past travel through time from 1783, to 1914, to 1993, to the ever-haunted present, against the background of his urgent need to make meaning of the shadowed past, and to live authentically in the present. He longs to forgive betrayal and come to terms with guilt. But everywhere, there are the ruins of inescapable consequences for Michael Filo, his beloved Lucia, desperate friend Hughie, and other finely drawn characters.

Militano evokes meaning and emotion throughout the book with detailed, sensual images – a major strength that entices and informs the reader along Michael Filo’s quest for answers, for meaning. One example is a hot summer afternoon in the Winnipeg of 1966. Michael, Lucia and Hughie, childhood friends, spend their days swimming at Notre Dame Park, stopping to see the turtles at Woolworth’s, the goldfish and lizards at Mike’s Pet Store on Sargent Street, and at times going downtown to “visit the wonders of Eaton’s.” Michael describes what they find:

The top floor was a maze of expensive furniture: model living room and dining room suites, kitchenettes… the latest color TV’s. We’d sit in the leather armchairs, imagining ourselves to be wealthy homeowners, until one of the salesclerks… shooed us away like houseflies. Our next stop was the bedroom displays, where we’d lay on the mattresses, commenting on how soft or hard they felt. But we were quick about it, ever wary of the sales staff.

Militano hints here at the sexuality that will soon complicate and devastate the children’s lives as they playact in rooms with already embedded adult purposes. But it is in Eaton’s basement that his mouth-watering details drift between childhood dreams and adult desires:

Here was the candy department, the counter stacked with Swiss and German chocolate bars… lemon drops, toffee, mints, and gumdrops. Below the counter were plastic bins full of small chunks of peanut brittle and… candies wrapped in shiny gold, green, or blue paper. We’d glanced over our shoulder like jewelery thieves before slyly picking up a candy or two from the open bins, then head directly for the stairs and out the door, our mouths full.

The three friends want more of everything: freedom, possessions, and fulfilment. Michael, Lucia, and Hughie eventually choose different paths to their hoped-for fulfilment. But the consequences of the near escape and the inability to control life is never far behind. There is much pleasure to be found in Militano’s passionate and intelligently controlled language, which is at once fresh, enchanting and enlightening.

Carmelo Militano is a Winnipeg poet, essayist, and with the publication of his novella Sebastiano’s Vine, a writer of exceptional fiction. He was born in Cosoleto, Italy, and immigrated to Canada as a child with his parents. In 2004 his chapbook, Ariadne’s Thread, won the F.G. Bressani award, given for poetry that best represents the Italian-Canadian experience. His poetry collection, Weather Reports, was short-listed for the Bressani award in 2012.

Michael Carrino was an English lecturer at the State University College at Plattsburgh, New York, where he was a co-founder and poetry editor of the Saranac Review. He has published five books of poetry, the most recent being By Available Light (Guernica, 2012).

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