"High Gate Health and Beauty"
(Reviewed Judi Clark SEP 20, 2000)
"Let the drops of rain shower upon all of God's creation, but the flowers growing here, whatever their health and beauty, were ours, all ours."
It's the start of summer vacation in the High Gate section of Jersey City, New Jersey. Fifteen year-old Joey Scadutto is enjoying a couple rounds of fetch with "the Dog", Prince, when he throws the ball too far. Old dogs, like Prince, usually know when to give up looking for a lost cause ball, so when Prince takes too long coming back, Joey decides he better see what's keeping him. When Joey finds the dog on Cobble Road, Prince is laying still with his head twisted up. It looks like someone has purposely strangled Uncle Mike's dog. As Joey narrates the unfolding events of this particular summer, we are given a portrait of a tight ethnic neighborhood where "lots of guys honor the old days and the old ways." It is with pride and love that Joey tells about people and events in High Gate. So when first Prince and then Uncle Mike are murdered, this turns out to be the summer that Joey feels a chasm when it comes to his loyalty.
Joey likes that Suzie, his mother, is trying just a little harder than the rest to better herself. She has a reputation for being smart; she still displays her spelling bee trophy from high school. A year ago she lost her preschool job because she didn't have any college credits. So now she's applying to the local Community College and, for income, takes a waitress position at a new upscale cafe where she gets introduced to NPR, Barnes & Noble and even a new haircut. She also seems to be seeing Buddy Resto, a detective "going places" on the Jersey City police force who has asked Suzie to help him study for his Captain's test. It could be that he is just using Suzie, as Joey's Aunt Pat and half-brother, Brian, think. But it's also possible that Buddy truly likes his mother since he has always treated her with more respect than the others, for example he doesn't swear around her or Joey.
Like just about everyone else in High Gate, his Aunt Pat values the old ways, maintaining the neighborhood dress, talk and stories, taking pride in fitting in with all the other "failures and lef'-behinds". She offers and takes support freely with everyone in High Gate. They know her story, she knows theirs. Throughout the years, Pat has had a series of jobs including the last one at High Gate Pharmacy. This is when, despite a long history of drug and alcohol involvement, she worked as a liquor consultant until the day she was suddenly booted and the store was stripped of its liquor and pharmacy licenses, and its name. Now it's called the High Gate Health and Beauty. Aunt Pat also has a history around town with different men, including a time with Buddy Resto. Lately, Pat hangs out and gets high with her nephew Brian, his girlfriend, Sonia and his boss Clay. Basically Pat is a screw up, everyone knows it, often gets annoyed by it, but she is who she is, extremely loyal.
Then there's his half-brother, Brian who simply put has an apathetic superiority complex. Typical of a older brother ready to move on, he comes and goes as he pleases. Joey watches his brother from a distance, understands him better than most, and knows many of Brian's secrets.
Joey is not without his own dilemma this summer. He has a letter he carries around from his teacher, Mr. Rodriguez, urging him to consider joining the next "wagon train" program, a chance to experience something other than city life. Joey daydreams of going, especially since a girl he likes is also invited, but senses deep down that it goes against the neighborhood creed if he does. Outwardly he reassures his Aunt Pat that, of course, he isn't really going, but, even after uttering these words, he doesn't stop thinking about the possibility.
The murders add one more layer of complexity to Joey's pubescent experience as he sorts his way through this tight community. Buddy Resto is ready to arrest a black woman for the murder based on some circumstantial evidence and neighborhood consensus. The black Prosecutor's detective feels that this is a prime example of racial prejudice. "There's two sides to a case... There's everything that happens before a crime, and there's everything that happens after it, to solve it." In this case, there hasn't been much done to truly solve it. Joey has a good idea who murdered the Dog and his owner. And like deciding on whether or not he should actually go on this "wagon train," Joey must decide what to do with the information he has about the case.
The cover of this novel is a street drawing of High Gate. I like this because it not only serves as a reference for events in the novel, but captures the essence of the size of the world in which they live. Throughout the novel they walk up and down these streets going to work, to funerals, to sun themselves, to help out Uncle Vic, past the High Gate Health and Beauty, to Clay's house, the Community College, the Police Department, the funeral home, and so on. Colicchio not only portrays the people in the neighborhood but leads us through a surprising psychological drama. Whatever it is that makes me like the HBO's series, The Sopranos, is in this book as well. Perhaps it is the way Colicchio gets at the heart and soul of these ordinary New Jerseyites through compelling dialogue and insightful descriptions that, with each page, lead us deeper into the story until it's startling end.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- As Told By Monk (1981)
- High Gate Health and Beauty (July 2000)
- The Trouble with Mental Wellness (April 2004)
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- Multicultural review of High Gate Health and Beauty (scroll down)
- The New York Times review of High Gate Health and Beauty
- Washington Times review of The Trouble with Mental Wellness
- The American Online excerpt for One Miracle Among Many
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About the Author:
Joseph Colicchio teaches at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City. He received a State Council on the Arts Award in Fiction two years. He lives in Cranford, NJ, with his wife Pat Vogler and their two sons.