Adventures in American Literature #15: Principato

Tom McHale (1941-1982) – Principato (1970)

Tom McHale is one of the great unsung giants of the 1970s American literary scene. (This blog post and its comments section will give you some sense of his career and its aftermath.) I don’t think any of his six novels have been in print for decades and unless someone does something soon, I feel that McHale’s legacy will sink further into oblivion. His immense talent deserves to be remembered.

Like his other brilliant work, the National Book Award-nominated Farragan’s Retreat (1971), Principato deals with the intertwining of family and Catholic faith. The protagonist, Angelo Principato, is blindsided by the news that his father, Joseph, is dying fast from cancer. Angelo, primarily referred to simply as Principato or Pato, must try to juggle that knowledge with the complications of his love life. His horrible wife, Cynthia Corrigan Principato, and the whole Corrigan clan have had their claws in him for eleven years (with five kids to show for it) by having suckered him into the marriage all those years ago. Principato tries to escape the stresses of his home life by having affairs, but all of those relationships have their unique intricacies.

Principato’s one enduring friendship is with a college friend, Nick Malatesta, who lives in an alcoholic haze in a broken-down New Jersey amusement park that he runs. Principato’s flashbacks to his Catholic university days, including a roommate’s sneaky plan to get rid of the noisy and anarchic Malatesta by siccing a crowd of hyper-religious students on him – Malatesta’s pleas of “Not the face! Don’t touch the face!” as the attackers swarm him will have you hollering with laughter – further develop Pato’s complex character.

As with Farragan’s Retreat, there is an undeniable aura of melancholy amidst the humor of Principato, but whether the imagery McHale generates is hilarious or tragic, it is writing that will stay with you. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.


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