Many thanks to Peter Blauner for resuscitating a 1939 gem of a novel, Christ in Concrete, by
Pietro Di Donato, a tale told through the eyes of Italian immigrant bricklayers, but one also of
capitalistic excess, the immigrant experience, and the Italian-American lens on labor, family,
faith, and the American dream.
As a third generation Italian-American (the first being the immigrants), coincidently whose
people emigrated from the same region of Italy as the novel’s protagonist, “the working man”
has always been championed throughout my extended family. Consisting at first of immigrant
laborers and tradesman, and through subsequent generations of college, graduate,
professional- school, and entrepreneurial achievers, we never lost sight of precisely who sustains
the world of everyday lives.
Christ in Concrete is an aria in praise of such people, its heroes not supermen but people who do
back-breaking work, day after day—because it puts food on the table, feeds children, supports
families and therefore is a worthy, even noble, human pursuit.
I won’t attempt to match Blauner’s excellent recap of the story and its themes but would add I
was delighted with Di Donato’s voice, the formal and strange diction of the Italian immigrant, so
familiar to me whose four grandparents were immigrants and whose English was so broken as to
comprise its own dialect. But always florid, passionate, and dramatic. They were simple people
whose Catholicism blended with paganism explained much of what couldn’t be understood, yet
allowed the flowering of babies and families and kitchens and feelings of la dolce vita—as long
as the mill or construction site was operating and the men working. In the book “job” is often
capitalized to Job, which I take as a synecdoche to mean all work, all opportunity, for the
working man to ply his trade and thrive.
I remember that as a young corporate suit, some of my many first cousins, high school graduates
less privileged than I, would ask during summer visits, “Are you working?” Of course I was, but
their lives were ones of layoffs, strikes, uncertainties and troughs—such that even returning to
the searing heat of steel mill furnaces, hazardous railroad work, spine-twisting road and tunnel
construction, mining—men’s work—work that made for la dolce vita, was good. But never not
Christ in Concrete gets to the inside of such experience while written in an interesting way–with
occasional and delightful stream-of-consciousness passages. And as Blauner and Studs Terkel
(champion of the working man & who wrote a preface) note, is an immigrant complement to
Grapes of Wrath, published the same year.