Robert Hellenga's superb debut, The Sixteen Pleasures, took the reader to 1960s Florence--a place of floods, fine art, and erotic discovery. His new novel, The Fall of a Sparrow, also opens in Italy, now transformed by the onslaught of terrorism. By 1980, this state of emergency even reaches the U.S., destroying one Midwestern family. Seven years later, Alan "Woody" Woodhull, popular classics teacher at a small Midwestern college, has yet to recover from the loss of his daughter Cookie in a Bologna train station bombing. Under financial pressure from his estranged wife (who's about to enter a convent) and in increasing professional peril (thanks to a high level of self-destructive behavior), he decamps for Italy, intent on bearing witness at the trial of his daughter's killers. The proceedings don't come off as Woody had planned. He does, however, encounter a series of richly drawn Italians--including the father of one terrorist--who are quick to share the benefits of their classical, sensual culture. (Caveat lector, this is a big, big book, and any attempt at synopsis conceals rather than discloses its ample treasures.)
The Fall of a Sparrow is a study in narrative, cultural, and psychological chaos. Woody does his level best to make meaning out of senselessness--in particular, the death of his daughter, but also the subsequent breakup of his family: "Cookie's death was like a cable, binding us to the past," he thinks. "Sometimes we'd think we'd slipped the cable and were running free, but then we'd be brought up short, like a dog that forgets it's on a chain." Again and again, he strives to break free, through literature, music (the blues), sex, and the strength of love. But what he has to learn, and what the book ultimately imparts, is that the past is not to be forgotten or surmounted but absorbed. In addition to his subtle psychological portraits of Woody and his remaining daughters, Hellenga also excels when it comes to the large scale. With his widescreen vision, he creates memorable, almost inhabitable slices of Italian--and American--life.