I have been looking forward to reading C. Anthony Martignetti’s Lunatic Heroes: Memories, Lies and Reflections for some time, and now that I have finished reading it, I find I have a lot of different things to say. In fact, what I think I’m going to do is the following.
I am going to write two sections to this review. The first will be an attempt at a more literary perspective of Lunatic Heroes, while the second will deal with my own personal reactions to the stories themselves. Before I go on, however, I just want to say that I will be referring to Anthony by his first name due to the way that I was introduced to him. I will elaborate on that later, but I just want to say that it would feel weird after reading about him and his own work to call him anything else. It’s the not first time I have done this with an author and it probably won’t be the last.
Lunatia heros is a species of Northern moon-snail that likes to live close to the shoreline of bodies of water. They are large gastropods that like to eat clams and other snails: including members of their own species. They consume their prey by drilling holes in their shells, releasing digestive enzymes, and sucking out the partially digested contents of their victims from within those shells. In fact, the only thing left of their fellow snails are these empty shells. According to Wikipedia, these moon snails hunt other mollusks down by searching for those that bury themselves in the sand of the shoreline.
Of all the titles Anthony could have given his work, Lunatic Heroes is by far the most apt. This book is essentially a collection of fifteen short stories or, technically written recollections, of some of the major events in Anthony’s life. Even though the book itself is categorized as a memoir, which it is, each narrative is both interrelated and self-contained.
At least twelve of these stories deal with Anthony’s childhood with his Italian-American family in Boston, while the remaining three focus on Anthony as a developing independent adult all the way to contemporary times. I don’t want to make too much of a generalization, but each story is about the insanity of the human condition. After all, the word lunatic is derived from the Latin word Luna and it was once thought that someone suffering from madness was “moon-touched,” while at the same time the moon itself has always been associated with the other world of the night, creativity and intuition.
In this, the metaphor of Lunatic Heroes functions in a few different ways. On one hand, most of Anthony’s stories are about the dysfunctional elements of his own family and his 1950s childhood: about the way each character would attempt to devour Anthony’s extremely introverted essence, digging under the sand where his self hid in order to successfully–or unsuccessfully–get at it.
On the other hand, Anthony’s narratives also take many of these same characters and portray their other more relatable sides. It is no coincidence, after all, that the heroes of ancient literature–for all of their deplorable moral behaviour by contemporary standards–still possessed a spark of divinity and managed to perform great deeds. In a fiercely passionate and witty voice tempered with a nostalgic unsentimentality not unlike that of Will Eisner, Anthony manages to show that these characters from his own life aren’t always monsters, but are very fallible human beings with some moments of relation, levity, and downright comedy: even and especially in some of the worst situations that he depicts.
What drew me in as a reader were the very mutable archetypes that Anthony managed to identify in his life: specifically with regards to how they transferred and inter-lapped throughout each story that he gathers together into a strange whole. Sometimes each narrative doesn’t always fit in a straight-line–which is more than fair given how a life of human interactions is generally never shaped that way–and he occasionally repeats a sentence from a previous story. But the archetypes really drew me in. Certainly, the whole Scylla and Charybdis parallel childhood dilemma in “Force Fed” was made very uncomfortably clear, just as the figure of a Far Eastern form of enlightenment and a symbolic place of personal transformation is within “Swamp.”
So thus ends the very brief and relatively spoiler free part of my review. Now I am going to talk about my personal reaction to Lunatic Heroes. I will say that I particularly related to “Force Fed.” When I was a boy, I was a very fussy eater and after I started to lose weight at twelve, my family thought that I had some kind of eating disorder. I didn’t really see a problem: in that when I stopped feeling hungry, I simply stopped eating. I was also lactose intolerant and I didn’t know that until my doctor and a slough of very uncomfortable and embarrassing tests happened. I lost a lot of weight from simply no longer eating dairy and then having a growth spurt. It also didn’t help that I was a very nervous child and my stomach suffered for it. But I could definitely relate to Anthony’s account of being made to feel like there was something wrong with you just because you simply weren’t hungry enough by the standards of others or the fact that you didn’t want to become sick.
I could definitely relate to the moments of introversion and hyper-sensitivity from Anthony’s depiction of his childhood self and that paradoxical need to have your parents always in your life, but at the same time that need to keep that bubble of personal space around you from being violated by the rest of the world: sometimes in vain. That is why I particularly related to–and if anyone knows me and is reading this they will be laughing by now–the last story “Hate.”
I admit that I was actually concerned when Anthony ended his memoir with a story entitled “Hate,” but it made sense. The thing is, Anthony is a psychotherapist and there are some things he talks about throughout the entire book–mindfulness, being in your head and needing to be in your body–that is very reminiscent of what my own therapist has been telling me for quite some years now. In “Hate,” Anthony even mentions how he still has snap judgments and immediate–and sometimes unfavourable–superficial impressions of people. They can bring up various associations his life: not all of them pleasant. But he also mentions how by realizing that these same people have pain and loss in their lives, it makes them relatable as human beings. It is still a lesson I have to keep reminding myself of during some of my more misanthropic world-obliterating moments of glee.
I also totally understand where Anthony is coming from in “The Head,” when he writes about the darkness and anger that he is feeling in himself even while he is with his wife and dog at a peaceful retreat: the knowledge of this fact that just made him feel worse until he has one moment of mindfulness. I think Anthony really hit home for me that you can mentally and emotionally awaken many times in life: and for different reasons. In that, “Swamp” and the events with regards to the freak show in “Carnival” really come to the fore. In addition, the story “Nonno” made me really miss my own Zaidy while I can more than sympathize with the need to belong and centre yourself and finding a place like “Harvard Square” home.
I am almost finished this strange review. But to make it even stranger, I want to write down some very notable lines, or moments of text that just made this entire book for me:
Anthony writes about longing: “But this time I felt the ache you get when longing for something you don’t think you have, coupled by the fear that you’d blow it if you did” (107).
He also describes the process of maturity, stating, “I was pulling off the heist of the decade, stealing the truth about myself from every encounter” (108-109).
Finally, there is this: “I imagined eventually befriending the Devil and getting promoted to demon status, sharing the power of evil and control over an infinite number of she-devils who would hungrily do my bidding” (129).
These are just such universal impulses and feelings, and as a writer I kind of wish I had been the one to express myself in such a way. The metaphor of the Lunatic Heroes is even more ingenious because in addition to moon snails being predators, Lunatia heros always leaves perfectly preserved husks from all of its feedings. Think about that for a few moments: even though the snail is gone, like the imprint of a lost self or Virginia Woolf’s spot on a wall, its shell–the testament to its existence–is left unearthed in the sand. It’s left there for others to find and see and marvel in the patterns that they created. In other words, we are the predators and the prey of our selves, but by simply living we take the selves of others with us, and we leave a testament to their existence. It is an excellent extended metaphor for a writer, the act of writing, literature itself and the state of being human.
Now I am finally going to tell you the reason why I refer to Anthony by his first name in this review. Through reading Anthony’s book, I feel like I know him a little more. But that is only part of it. The rest of the reason has to do with how I discovered him.
It was mainly by accident. I was searching for Amanda Palmer’s Blog and I came across her entries about Anthony and just some of what he means to her. I will let you read that entry should you so wish. But what I will say is that Amanda wrote the “Introduction” to Anthony’s book and she said something that really got to me.
Amanda wrote the following, “I had a small glimpse into the act of writing as a direct escape from pain. For the first time, I experienced the physical truth of what it felt like to dwell in the act of creation as the only viable escape from an unbearable, unfaceable reality” (ix). I read this statement and I took a look at myself. I took a look at my notebooks around me in my room. And then I looked at the one hundred or so posts I’ve made on this very Blog. I took a look at what I try to do every single day now and I thought…
Yes. Just … yes.
Amanda also went on to talk about how she and Anthony delve into the uncomfortable, and awkward, and painful moments of clarity that is life. And you will find that and more in exquisite detail if you read this book.
Now I am going to end off now by doing something even stranger. I am going to give Lunatic Heroes a four out of five.
And here is why.
After reading “The Introduction” and Anthony’s “Acknowledgments,” and just hearing about him and some of his life from Amanda’s Blog, I wanted to know … more. Even though the way he describes his childhood, sometimes blatantly and sometimes tinged with hazy mythical half-memories is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Violent Cases, I want to know about the rest of it: the adolescent rebellion you see forming in the latter stories, what happened in the rest of his travels, what his other fights were about, and more about his exposure to other philosophies and other relationships.
When it comes down to it, I want to see more. And as one lunatic hero to another, Anthony, I sincerely hope to.