This novel is called Dark Passions by A.J. Ciulla This book is a shocker! This is an accomplished raconteur. Although the action spills over to three cities upstate and western New York, Dark Passions is a tale of one neighborhood, not unlike many others throughout the country. He peoples it with unforgettable characters living ordinary lives. So deep did these workaday characters engulf me that upon completion of the book, a sadness came over me that they were gone. Choice bits of dialogue keep coming back to me. Dialogue carries this narrative a long way. Jennie was an orphan. There were painfully few safety nets for orphaned, unwed females. the day after the armistice was her eighteenth birthday and now she was on her own. The home arranged an interview at Woolworth’s. She was hired and joined other young girls in sales. Working with them was pleasant. On weekends they taught her to dance at the Sea Breeze Pavilion. Before long, however, the roommate with whom she shared expenses married and left Jennie in a bind.
Jennie married a man not of her choosing but for desperate need. Gus Rhinehardt was not only a bootlegger, but an alcoholic as well. On those nights when he maintained a modicum of sobriety, she was ravaged. Her husband gave her a freedom of sorts. Gus would spend the evening with his drinking cronies and that allowed her to go dancing at Sea Breeze. Dancing had become her passion. She was very good on the dance floor. though there were many young male dancers, she refused to consider cheating on her husband, however often she wondered what it was like in bed as a participant. The apartment was a short distance from Martino’s Oasis where her councellor spoke to her through an open window, not directly, but with horn. Every night Jennie hurried home from Sea Breeze, not for fear of her nightly trips to the pavilion being discovered by Gus. He was past caring. She wanted to catch the last set of a great band featuring a great musician named Jazzman Caruthers. He understood her, talking to her through his horn. He would pander to her self-pity, adding to her despair. Then his horn would blare triumphantly, promising better days.
Her pregnancy changed everything. It was anathema to her. It meant an end to her dancing. Once her son was born, she wanted desperately to name him Jazzman. She didn’t dare. She named him Jasmin. Then tragedy hit Jennie hard. Gus was slain in the bootleg war. With Gus’ death there was an urgency to move, to lose herself in a remote area. Someone had removed the moneybelt from Gus’ body before he had a chance to turn it in and the search was on for its recovery. This concerned Jennie for it was she who stripped Gus of the moneybelt. With the money she purchased a home in the extreme northeast corner of the city in an area more rural than urban. The Lord was generous with Jasmin. He gave him good looks, a graceful body and a voice that would serve him well should he opt to tread the boards. Circumstances drew mother and son close. The manifestations of that love would raise no eyebrows in the neighborhood, but a maturing Jasmin was another matter.
It is in the history of the times through fiction that A.J. Ciulla is at his best. His characters live in the pages of Dark Passions, each unique in his or her own way and not cardboard cutouts to fill out the scenes.