Eugene Mirabelli’s Renato, The Painter drew accolades and won its author, and publisher McPherson & Company of Kingston, an Independent Publisher Award (IPPY) Gold Medal for Literary Fiction when it came out in 2013. Some criticized the novel’s lack of specificity when it came to the title character’s actual paintings, but all praised the longstanding novelist’s lusty memoir-like narrative, rich sense of the picaresque, and lively evocation of a post-war ethos where intellect matched eroticism and a bawdy embrace of life.
Mirabelli’s new Renato After Alba: His Rage Against Life, Love & Loss in his own Words takes the New England Sicilian curmudgeon from his previous self-reckoning at age 70 to widowhood at 83. We get glimpses of the old Renato and his past indiscretions in the clear autumnal light of mourning, the wintery briskness of comeuppance and acceptance, and even a spring-like blossoming of catharsis. It’s a beautiful book.
Mirabelli published his first novel at the age of 27, back in the 1950s. He taught writing for years, kept publishing throughout his life. The new book is his fourth outing with the painter he once wished he could be (and whose friendships he surrounded himself with). You can feel a lifetime worth of authorship bring brought to a close in this quiet tour-de-force, from its various characters’ weighty discussions of philosophy and art, loss and survival, to its heartrending descriptions of a semi-rural retired life after years in cities, or the continuation of attraction after one’s become both a parent and grandparent.
I kept thinking of a scene from the Bob Rafelson/Jack Nicholson film Five Easy Pieces throughout this book, where the young, rebellious Nicholson character tries speaking with his father, a noted musician now strapped into a wheelchair after a debilitating stroke, outside in a field. The younger character cries, frustrated to no longer be able to elicit any answer from his father. Renato After Alba is that answer.
“Having his world in front of me and not my own gave me just enough distance from the subject to be able to write,” Mirabelli recently wrote on the website LitHub about this book, which he never thought he’d write.
The previous award-winner was started before Mirabelli’s wife died suddenly. It had been a form of therapy, he’s noted, built on elements he’d discussed over the years with his beloved Margaret. This latest book was something else, which he jumped into without knowing where it would take him, or he’d allow himself to go.
“His (Renato’s) life was roomy enough to allow me to bring into the book the personal things other widowers and widows had told me about their lives — the tidal emotions, the bizarre thoughts — and how they got through the first couple of years,” Mirabelli continued about melding his own experience with his character, Renato’s. “That was important to me because the day after Margaret was torn out of my life I realized that the same thing was happening to other men and women all over the globe. My grief wasn’t unique, only the details were.”
Renato After Alba proceeds in fits and starts, unlike Renato, The Painter, allowing what plot twists there are, and final rising to something life-affirming and almost ethereal, to come about with the naturalness of life’s small elements of life that capture the painter’s attention as he returns to the world, and eventually the art that shaped his life before his partner’s passing. The book doesn’t need its predecessors to feel rich, either; the character’s younger selves come to life as well as those that still hold meaning for him in his 80s, old and new. There’s a sweet tension whenever he meets a fascinating younger woman, or even older flames.
“Can you follow this goddamn story? I know it’s a jumbled mess but it’s what I recall, and also some notes I wrote to Alba, plus unconnected pieces,” he writes in the first third (and repeats, episodically, as he keeps writing to the book’s beautiful end). “Parts are missing and some of them may be important, but they’re missing because I don’t remember, or because I do remember and don’t want to…I’m blundering ahead, like our moronic blundering Creator.”
When I finished all this I immediately found myself searching for Mirabelli’s earlier award-winner. Like Richard Russo’s recent revival of his grand character Sully in Everybody’s Fool (some 23 years after the success of Nobody’s Fool), there’s something sweet and affirming about revisiting old characters. But then I paused.
What he’s achieved here, in Renato After Alba, is profound by itself. It gives voice to something I hadn’t quite heard before. It’s a fabulous journey, and yet very real. It’s a gem.