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Jersey mob, French accent in 'Malavita'

"Malavita" by Tonino Benacquista (Penguin, June 2013)

"Malavita" by Tonino Benacquista (Penguin, June 2013) Credit: Handout

MALAVITA, by Tonino Benacquista, translated from French by Emily Read. Penguin Books, 283 pp., $15.

At the start of "Malavita," farcical new novel from Italian-French author Tonino Benacquista, Americans have once again landed on the shores of Normandy. But rather than liberate, these Americans are here to hide. Fred Blake and his wife, Maggie, teenage children Warren and Belle, and little dog Malavita, arrive in the small town of Cholong-sur-Avre as VIP wards of the FBI witness protection program. In his former life, Fred was known as Giovanni Manzoni, a heavy hitter in the New Jersey Cosa Nostra-turned-stool pigeon. Now, there are quite a few people who would like to see him dead. Standing against those who would do the Blakes harm is Tom Quintiliani, gruff FBI lawman whose revulsion at providing for the well-being of a career criminal is at odds with dedication to his mission.

The book is arch in a way that frees it from a boorish observance of anything resembling reality, and there are some very funny moments, such as Warren's Machiavellian rise to position of Godfather of the schoolyard, or when Maggie, upon moving in, takes offense at being written off as an Ugly American by the cashiers at a local shop. "Maggie felt hurt," Benacquista writes, "By treating her as a typical American, they had cast doubts on all her goodwill and efforts at integration." She then proceeds to burn the establishment to the ground.

Despite the high comedy, the capitol-L literary pleasures here are few, due largely to a translation from the original French that fails to capture even a modicum of the Jersey patois that helped turn the thieving-and-murdering Soprano family into charming, almost lovable favorites. Without these grace notes, the characters struggle to come to life, especially for an American readership familiar with how a mob boss and his paisanos are supposed to sound. And the more archetypal the characters, the less forgivable is the borderline offensive stereotyping of Italian-Americans.

When an incredible coincidence tips off the mob to the family's location, a literal busload of heavily armed assassins arrives to hold the town under siege, and the plot goes a bit off the rails. But this action-comedy book is all good fun throughout, thanks largely to its original premise. The story is currently being made into a movie starring none other than Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer, who will, no doubt, inject into these characters the proper attitude and Americanisms currently absent. Whichever patented De Niro mobster decides to show up, either the icy thumb-breaker of "Goodfellas" or the bumbling goofball of "Analyze This," will dictate whether the movie turns out to be a dark comedy or a light farce.

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