Fists

Fists is a collection of three short stories by the Italian writer, Pietro Grossi. His admiration for Hemingway is referred to more than once on the jacket, and can be seen clearly in the first two stories, both of which are concerned with growing up and what it means to be a man. Even their titles, ‘Boxing’ and ‘Horses’, seem to come from a different time, and there is little in them to suggest Italy or the 21st century.

‘Boxing’ is narrated by a young man who describes himself as:

“…the perfect son – studious, nerdy, conventional, obedient, who went to bed early and who, if you asked, even said his prayers before going to sleep. But he didn’t want to play the piano.”

In fact, the only way he will agree to play the piano is if his mother lets him box. A battle of wills ensues which he eventually wins, albeit having been forbidden from ever boxing competitively. He turns out to be a skilful boxer, nicknamed the Dancer as a result of the speed and grace of his movement in the ring:

“I was kind of a legend….It was said that I was the best, the strongest, and that I didn’t fight because I knew I’d already won.”

All this changes when he sees the Goat, a fighter diametrically opposed in style. Where he is thought unbeatable, the Goat is unbeaten, and for the first time he feels the need to know whether he can beat someone. Grossi’s description of the fight is a tour de force and the centre piece of the story. Victory is not clear cut and it is this that gives that story its resolution, with Grossi indicting his theme in the final sentence:

“I had the feeling this was Man’s business, and I wasn’t used to it.”

‘Horses’ too is about the trials and obligations of being a man, and might remind you of Cormac McCarthy as well as Hemingway. It is about two brothers, Daniel and Natan, who are given horses by their father to teach them about responsibility. In order to train the horses they must work for Old Pancia, the local horse dealer, in return for his expertise. Whereas Natan uses his horse to escape to the freedom of the nearest town, Daniel remains with Pancia, learning all he can, and eventually buying a sick horse and nursing her back to health. Unfortunately the man he bought the horse from feels cheated and takes his revenge. What is important is Daniel’s reaction to this. When he returns home for rifle, his father

“…wondered if he ought to do something, or stop Daniel from doing something, but he had a kind of feeling that his son had understood what he was thinking. Then it struck him that it had been a while now since, without saying anything, each of them had chosen to live his own life, and that it was pointless to do anything.”

Key to the story is Daniel’s decision to deal with this himself; and in particular, without the support of his brother, whom he later tells, “It’s not your business.”

The third story, ‘The Monkey’, seems more modern from the moment a phone rings in the very first sentence (although we soon discover it is a landline, and that the main character, Nico, does not possess a mobile). The call is from Maria, the sister of an old friend, Piero. She tells him that Piero has started “acting like a monkey,” and when we meet him later, we find that this is exactly the case:

“He was naked, crouching beside the bed, playing with a little pile of pistachio shells, just like a monkey.”

Nico and Piero’s meeting takes up only a page of the story, but in the course of it he remembers an earlier phone call, and there are indications that Piero might be in love with Nico. Similarly, Nico was once attracted to Maria:

“Nico had immediately fallen in love with her, and for years Maria had been his erotic fantasy, the inaccessible almost mystical creature everyone encounters sometime during their adolescence.”

Indeed, Nico’s visit to Piero is partly predicated on meeting Maria again, but the difference between Nico and Piero is that Nico seems more resigned to letting his dreams go, as can be seen from his relationship with his present girlfriend. ‘The Monkey’ is not as neat as the other two stories, but in some ways that makes it the most interesting.

Can it win? It’s difficult for short stories to compete against novels, so it’s unlikely. However, all three stories have something to recommend them, and this may well make the short list.

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