Marco Rafalà’s debut novel, How Fires End, (Little A) is a powerful tale about the bonds between fathers and sons that attempts to answer this question: is the past ever really left in the past?
How Fires End consists of three novella-length sections, each narrated by a resident of an Italian-American community in Connecticut: David, Salvatore, and Vincenzo. The novel opens with David’s section, travels back in time with Salvatore’s, and concludes with Vincenzo’s. Woven through each story is the tale of the village of Melilli, Sicily, and the town’s worship of the martyr Saint Sebastian.
After soldiers withdraw from Melilli in 1943, the locals celebrate and give thanks to their patron saint, Sebastian. Amid all the festivities, Salvatore Vassalo’s twin brothers happen upon an unexploded mortar shell and are killed when it detonates. Salvatore’s life is changed forever and his faith is destroyed. Fear that the Vassallo name is cursed courses through the community.
Desperate to escape this tragic legacy, Salvatore and his sister, Nella, eventually accept the help of an Italian soldier, Vincenzo, who moves with them to America to start a new life, determined to help keep their past a secret.
Years later, Salvatore’s teenage son, David Marconi, discovers a collection of old family mementos and unravels the truth, that his surname is actually Vassallo. David has been bullied by a classmate, Tony Morello, and there are hints that there is bad blood between the boys’ fathers, going all the way back to their days in Sicily. As David tries to understand what caused the feud, tragedy befalls the Vassallo family once again.
Rafalà’s skilled use of figurative language manages to bring to life both 1980s Connecticut and post-WWII Sicily. The characters are written with careful complexity, drawing you even further into their stories; teenage David is both at times brooding and obedient, simultaneously wanting to stand up to his bully but also please his father. Salvatore is gruff and set in his old ways, but does so out of love and a desire to protect his son from the past.
Heartbreaking and haunting, How Fires End is a powerful novel that explores devastating family secrets – who keeps them and why, how and when they will someday be revealed, and whether they can or will ever be forgiven. Part war story, part family history, it is a beautiful tale of multi-generational love, loss, grief, and hope.
I’ve read that it took you 10 years to complete How Fires End. Was this ten years of steady writing and revisions, or did you ever put the book on hold to work on other projects?
The only time writing and editing for How Fires End was truly on hold were when the manuscript was out on submission to agents or editors—which happened a couple times over the years—or when I was stumped on how to address a problem in the revision. When I did attempt to put How Fires End aside and work on other material, I always ended up back in that world, writing in the voice of one of its characters. This exercise—for lack of a better word—often revealed a solution to whatever trouble I was having in the manuscript. In retrospect, I tricked myself into thinking I’d let go, and that was freeing.
What made you decide to tell How Fires End through multiple narrators?
The decision to have multiple perspectives grew organically. The first scene I wrote is now in the middle of the book, in Salvatore’s voice—the moment when he witnesses his twin brothers’ death. For a long time, I thought that was where the book started, and that Salvatore would be the only narrator. But as I kept writing, I got to a point where I realized there was more story that Salvatore didn’t know or couldn’t bring himself to tell. So I began writing David’s section. This is when I knew I had a stereoscopic narrative on my hands, which was a more complicated structure than I’d originally envisioned. The narratives for Vincenzo and Nella grew from this slow realization that each of these characters also had a piece of the story to tell.
Looking back, I think there’s also a parallel between the multiple narrators and the Sicilian idea of omerta, the code of silence. A lot of the tension among the characters comes from the things they cannot say to each other, and those silences are reflected in the novel’s structure.
What was the most difficult scene for you to write?
The first two chapters of the David section were the most challenging to get right. Over many drafts, I wrote and rewrote those pages. The chapters have to do a lot. They introduce David and his father, the friendship between Sam and David, the conflict between David’s family and the Morello family, and the world itself. They also have to draw the reader in. One of the final structural changes for the opening was moving the fight scene between David and Tony Morello from a point later in the book to the first chapter. This change required fracturing time, which was hard to accomplish. But in a way, it also prepares the reader for the book’s overall structure and the idea of how trauma shapes our relationship to time.
Were there any scenes that you wish you could have included, but that got cut out of the manuscript?
All of the scenes I cut made the manuscript better, even if it was difficult to cut them in the moment. For example, I wrote an extended scene—pages and pages—of David going to confession at Saint Sebastian Church. But as I was revising, I realized that scene wasn’t that interesting, and that David skipping confession instead said more about who he was at that moment in his life.
What writers have influenced or inspired you?
There are a few books that were really pivotal for me. First was Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh, which tells the story of a group of friends who experience a trauma that no one speaks about and then charts how the effects of that trauma—and the silence itself—shapes their lives. It was the first time I’d seen a novel that laid bare the damning nature of silence, not as a plot device, but what it did to people.
A Kiss from Maddalena by Christopher Castellani helped me see how a story about ordinary Italians during the Second World War—the stories of civilians and the hardships they endured—might be something other people would want to read. It made my own novel feel possible.
Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead gave me the courage to write about my own experiences with faith, to not shy away from either my Roman Catholic upbringing or the cultural traditions of Sicilian superstitions and beliefs.
Finally, Italian writer Giovanni Verga’s The House by the Medlar Tree, which was made into the 1948 film La Terra Trema introduced me to Italian neorealist cinema. These films helped me understand how to write about the working poor in post-war Italy without glossing over the ugliness and the hardships while somehow still holding quiet notions of hope for the future, often embodied in children.
Tell us about the Guerrilla Lit Reading Series. What was the inspiration to start the group? What have been some of your most memorable readings?
I cofounded the series with fellow writers I met in the New School’s MFA program. Our original inspiration was to maintain and foster the sense of community we had in school, and that is still the case. As curators, we’re always striving to be better at curating and to come up with a lineup that makes sense or is surprising in unexpected ways.
This past year, we experimented with featuring all debut authors, including Julia Phillips, whose novel was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, and Melissa Rivero, whose novel won the 2019 New American Voices Award. One of my favorite readings of all time was with Lev Grossman, Ryan Britt, and Sam J. Miller. These three science fiction/fantasy writers not only complemented each other well, but spoke to our aim of having emerging and established writers on the same stage.
As a writer, when did you first learn that your words had power?
I learned that words had power through music. Growing up, our house was always full of Italian music with my father singing along with the local Italian program on the radio. My father is a very traditional Sicilian man. He’s bound up in and trapped by the notion of machismo, and he doesn’t show emotion besides anger. But this one song, Sicilia Bedda, Sicilia Mia—Beautiful Sicily, My Sicily, always left him exposed, raw. When he sang along with it, I could hear the emotion in his voice, the love. It’s an immigrant song, seeping with nostalgia about a Sicilian laborer who comes to the United States for work but longs to one day see home again. Each word and note in the song is fraught with yearning—and they had a power over my father, one that gave me a glimpse into the man beneath that tough exterior.
An excerpt from How Fires End:
At home, after the fight, I shucked off my soaking-wet clothes in my bedroom and changed into dry jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. Out the window, my father stood ankle deep in snow in the backyard.
He had dragged the charcoal grill from the shed and was roasting store-bought peppers. My reflection overlaid the scene in the glass, black hair cut short and parted at the cowlick on the right—the twig offspring of that thick old oak. Outside, I held open a brown paper lunch bag for my father to fill. The craggy lines of his face tightened in the light from the fire. His mouth sagged to a frown. He clicked the tongs in his hand, a metronome of disappointment, and turned over a pepper. The fire spat a red spark. He pulled back his hand. “See,” he said, “you have to be quick so the fire doesn’t bite you.” He picked up a steaming and blackened pepper with his bare hand. “And you have to be strong,” he said, and dropped the pepper in the bag.
In the snow behind him, deep drag lines from the grill and footprints alongside them tracked back to the shed. Smooth waves of snow covered his garden beds. Months of hard work and care would make those beds flush with spinach and chard, peppers and eggplant. Everything he loved grew from the hard work of his hands in that garden.
“I got a couple good hits in,” I lied. “Before you showed up.”
“Yeah,” my father said, stretching out the sound of the word. He laughed a small laugh that made me feel small. “Okay.” He squeezed my shoulder. “Go inside before you catch cold.”
“What did Rocco mean by ‘that Fascist’?”
My father turned the peppers on the grill. He took his time with each one, a tempo set by his tongs. Click-click. Click-click. Peppers sizzled. “That word, it does not mean what you think it means.”
I inched closer to the heat to keep from shivering. “So tell me.”
Click-click. Click-click. The fire bit him and he shook his hand. “Mannaggia la miseria,” he cursed. “See what you do?” He placed his burnt thumb in his mouth and decided what to do with me, the boy who’d lied and distracted him from his work. He hung the tongs from the grill handle and motioned for me to follow him to the tarp-covered woodpile by the old shed. I rolled the paper bag closed, set it down on the porch step, and traipsed through the snow after him. He’d made the shed himself from scraps of plywood and mismatched siding planks, roof felt and corrugated iron. Icicle teeth sharpened the edges of the rusted metal roof. A twist of black-and-copper electrical wire held the door shut.
He handed me a thin stick of kindling, and I carped, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You break it.”
I snapped it in half.
Then he collected a bundle of thin sticks and said, “Now these.”
The bundle wouldn’t break. I tried again, this time against my thigh. It wouldn’t even bend, no matter how I strained against it. “Now you understand,” my father said. He wiped his hands on the thick canvas of his work pants.
“Can you do it?” I asked him.
My father pulled my knit hat down over my ears. “No one can,” he said. “But some men, they like to fight anyway, and men like that are crazy. Better you stay away from them.”
“Is that what you would do?”
“Never mind what I do.” He returned to the grill, his face lit and unlit by the cloven fire, moving in and out of darkness and light, as if he belonged to both. “What I do?” he said to the crackling flames. It was a question that clung to the air the way the smell of charcoal and smoke and sweet grilled peppers clung to my father’s clothes.
Later, when we moved inside, he posed the question again. We were in the kitchen, peeling roasted peppers, and I had made a mess of mine. When he finished salvaging my botched pepper, he held it up for me to see. “What I do?” he asked. “I take care of my family.” Then he dropped the skinned pepper in a clear glass bowl of sliced raw garlic and olive oil. “How old are you now?” he asked me.
“Dio mio,” he said. “Almost a man you are. A few more years yet.” With his towel, he cleaned the juice and seeds from the table. “I was younger than you and already a man,” he said, “when the war came.”
His calloused hands trembled. He worked the last of the peppers. His eyes locked on something in the distance, something I could never quite see. “Get me the wine,” he said.
I brought a bottle of his murky red up from the basement, pulled on the white T-shirt fabric that held the cork in place. He stopped me from pouring him a glass.
“Let it breathe,” he said. “It needs to breathe before you drink it.” He nodded at the empty foldaway chair. His look pulled me back down into its flimsy vinyl padding. “We prayed,” he said. “In caves, we prayed the bombs would not find us. Even as the mountain shook like one of Mount Etna’s earthquakes, we prayed, and when the fighting stopped—” He cocked his head to one side and tsked. “They destroyed everything.”
He opened a can of sardines at the counter. Then he cut two slices from a loaf of crusty sesame seed bread and dropped them into the toaster. “It was August,” he said, moving into the story I knew well, the one he always circled back to even now, forty-three years later. So I did what I always did. I listened and I tried to see them, who they would have been, who we all would have been if my uncles hadn’t died.
“August,” he said again, this time in Sicilian. “A hot day, the day my brothers wandered away from the celebration in the piazza. I had to find them. My papà wanted me to find them. And you know where I find them? Those stupid boys.” He frowned, thinking about the answer. When he spoke again, he spoke in English, his voice almost a whisper. “They were in the almond orchard playing with an artillery shell. I yelled at them to stop, I did.”
When he talked about his brothers, there was a lesson in the story, unspoken—and he told me that lesson all the time. If I wasn’t careful, if I didn’t listen to his every word, if I didn’t watch out, I could end up dead like them. A fear like that could crush you.
My father poured wine into a mason jar. He sat back down, leaned over his food, elbows on the table. He stuffed a forkful of peppers into his mouth, and bit into a slice of dark toast topped with sardines. “Those stupid twins,” he said. He wagged a finger at me. “I told you to stay at the library until I came for you.”
I sunk into my seat and forked green and red peppers from the bowl. “I’m sorry,” I said.
The kitchen grew quiet except for the clank of utensils against dishes and teeth. My father raised his head from his food. He pursed his lips. His brow furrowed. He drank his wine, and then raised the jar to the light for me to see the rusty hues. “Just a sip,” he said. “Go on. Try.”
When I tried his homemade wine, I scrunched up my face. “It tastes like vinegar,” I said.
He snorted like a horse. “A few more years yet,” he said.
My father never talked about my mother the way he talked about his brothers. She died when I was five years old and he never mentioned her at all, so I didn’t either. One day she was there, and then she wasn’t. And all her belongings, all the pictures of her and of us together, they disappeared, too, as if my father wanted me to forget her. It was like she never stopped disappearing. But I still had my mother’s glow-in-the-dark stars on my bedroom ceiling—the stickers she and I had put there together. The stars she had taught me how to read.
Tell me the story again, I’d say. The one about Pisces, and I’d point at the green constellation. What are they? she’d ask me, and I’d yell out, Fish! How many fish? she’d say. Two fish tied by their tails, a mother and her son transformed. They swam free from the monster, Typhon.
Typhon sought revenge against the gods for the deaths of his serpent-footed brothers. He stood as high as the stars, a sickle-winged colossus, roaring with the heads of a hundred wild beasts. He rained down a barrage of mountains and fire on the gods, and the gods trembled before his wrath. They changed into animals, retreating in a thunderclap of mighty hooves. The world shuddered. Waves cut the horizon with glassy teeth, an ocean gnawing at the sky, frothing at the mouth in the pitch of Typhon’s storm. All seemed lost until Minerva goaded Jupiter into fighting back. But even the king of the gods could not destroy Typhon. So Jupiter buried the monster under Mount Etna, where he still spews fire and ash into the air. In this way, a volcano was born.
Sometimes my father was Typhon, fueled by an inconsolable rage for what had happened to his brothers, trapped under a mountain of rock but still burning and angry at everyone, even me. Sometimes Tony was Typhon, a stupid beast bent on mindless destruction, always able to spot the weakness in me. But now I understood that Typhon was something else, too—a secret, long-simmering hatred between Rocco Morello and my father. And my lie had banged on that secret, like an unexploded shell between them. It had freed a monster not even the gods could tame.
About the author: Marco Rafalà is a first-generation Sicilian American novelist, musician, and writer for award-winning tabletop role-playing games. He earned his MFA in Fiction from The New School and is a cocurator of the Guerrilla Lit Reading Series in New York City. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, he now lives in Brooklyn, New York. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review and LitHub. How Fires End is his debut novel.
- Q&A with author Marco Rafalà and an excerpt of How Fires End - April 28, 2020