In 1937, a 25-year-old Italian-American bricklayer published a story in Esquire magazine. “Christ in Concrete” arrived with unusual fanfare for a debut work of fiction. The son of Italian immigrants, Pietro di Donato was heralded by the editors as “an almost incredibly talented young Italian bricklayer lately turned author” — so good that they thought his submission was a practical joke, some “Union Square or Greenwich Village gag.” The editors wrote that of the 18,000 story submissions to the magazine in the past few years, no writer matched the “performance and promise” of di Donato.

Meyer Levin, the Esquire editor tasked with investigating di Donato’s background, discovered that the writer’s father had died at a construction site when di Donato was only 12 years old. The young di Donato worked to support his family of seven brothers and sisters since the tragic accident. Although he’d been laboring for more than a decade as a bricklayer, di Donato wanted to write a “novel on [his] bricklayer background.” Levin, a tough but honest critic, said that on his story alone, “we consider him, already, a writer of distinguished performance.”

The story begins with a short, dramatic paragraph: “March whistled stinging snow against the brick walls and up the gaunt girders. Geremio, the foreman, swung his arms about, and gaffed the men on.” Tight phrases strung along in winding syntax: a unique narrative style that evokes, with eerie authenticity, the syntax and song of Italian immigrant syntax. The story is powerful, but feels incomplete and raw — for good reason. The Esquire version contains the first two chapters of what would become di Donato’s 1939 novel, “Christ in Concrete.” 80 years later, “Christ in Concrete” is largely considered a Modernist footnote, but is worth revisiting as a lost gem of powerful immigrant fiction.

The first chapter of the novel occurs on Holy Thursday. Geremio — the book’s main character, who is based on di Donato’s own father — is feeling cold, “but who am I to complain when the good Christ Himself was crucified?” Throughout the novel, the bricklaying work itself is personified as “Job”: “The cold ghastly beast, the Job, stood shark, the eerie March wind wrapping it in sharp shadows of falling dusk.” The work cares nothing about the workers, who toil long hours for little wages.

Geremio, after years of saving money, has just bought a house, and feels especially proud. Yet while Geremio lays in bed at night with his wife Annunziata, she becomes worried. Geremio usually talks about his different jobs, but now, after a month, “you have not spoken a word about the work.” She asks him: “Is the work dangerous?” We sense that it is, but the chapter trails off into an ending ellipsis.

The book’s second chapter, set on Good Friday, begins with a funereal line: “Job loomed up damp, shivery gray.” Geremio and the other workers are tired, but happy that they get to leave early. The complacent scene turns terrifying. The floor shakes beneath them. Geremio, unsure if he is “faint or dizzy,” struggles to catch his balance. The building they are working on quakes, and then collapses. Trapped upright, “his blue swollen face pressed against the form and his arms outstretched,” Geremio is crucified like Christ among the rubble. The scene is frenetic, and difficult to read. He dies mid-prayer, pleading for God’s mercy on his soul.

Paul, Geremio’s 12-year-old son, takes over his bricklaying job to support the family. Paul’s struggle and journey become the focus of “Christ in Concrete,” and through his life we see an authentic portrayal of Catholic immigrant culture. When Annunziata attempts to get compensation for her husband’s death, the “casually opulent” government bureaucrats “seemed not of Christ.” Pietro di Donato has said that any depiction of Christianity “must always portray the ‘have-nots,’ the workers, the poor who have nothing to lose but their honor and their lives.”

Unlike his mother, Paul loses his faith. In one of the final scenes of the novel, he tears a crucifix from the wall and openly rejects his mother’s belief. Here the novel strikes an especially autobiographical tone. Like Paul, Pietro di Donato thought the building collapse that killed his father was the fault of his father’s boss — a contractor who allegedly used cheap materials. His childhood suspicion developed into an economic and political philosophy in which Job itself — the relentless drive to produce and profit — killed his father.

“Christ in Concrete” is a visceral, punchy, and real novel about Catholic immigrant life in New York City. Sadly, di Donato never recaptured the literary magic of his first book. In 1960 he told Time magazine that “I became too sophisticated for bricklaying and too confused to write.” His anger against Job evolved into an anger against all institutions, including the Church. 

In that same Time interview, di Donato said “Catholicism of today doesn’t reach me. Mine is a primitive, quasi-pagan religion” — yet in 1987, he sounded more nostalgic. “I respond to the sensuality of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, its art, its music, its fragrances, its colors, its architecture,” he said, stressing that Catholicism and his Italian identity were intertwined. Although he retained problems with the institutional church, he was trying to make peace “with the essence of Christianity.” He even wrote a novelistic biography of Mother Cabrini titled “Immigrant Saint.”

Pietro di Donato’s blistering talent came from places of passion and loss. Full of vision and bombast, di Donato’s sense of grandeur was clear even in the cover letter that accompanied his story submission to Esquire — which the editors described as having a “note of arty self-dramatization.” Meyer Levin, the editor who first championed di Donato’s work, made a prophetic statement in his preface to the young writer’s story: “I think he is completely emotionalized and that future work is utterly unpredictable.” Wise words of caution: “Christ in Concrete” is truly a once-in-a-lifetime book.

Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, and is a Contributing Editor for The Millions. He is writing a book on Catholic culture and literature in America for Fortress Press.

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