Caught by the River

Joseph Torra

Ian Preece | 9th June 2013

The My Ground Trilogy, A Bystander’s Scrapbook, Call Me Waiter, Time Being and What’s So Funny – a look at a handful of the books of Joseph Torra.

words: Ian Preece

I washed dishes by day and worked the cook line by night. Bonanza was more like a fast food joint than a steak house. The customer placed an order with the cashier who took the money while verbally transferring the order through a microphone that blared throughout the restaurant on loud speakers so diners and cooks alike were treated to the barrage.
One Bonanza Burger Medium Rare
One Horse’s Cave-Man Steak Rare
One Little Joe Well Done Extra Mushroom Gravy . . .
It went on like this all night. To make matters worse it took a customer two or three minutes to gather silverware and tray and pay and when they got to the end of the line the meals weren’t always ready. Things got dicey when it was busy and once a biker complained to the manager and when he wasn’t satisfied with the response the biker reached over the line and grabbed the manager by his tie and shook him so hard the manager’s eyeglasses flew into the Fryalator. We had to shut it down in order to drain all the oil and we couldn’t serve Ringo Fries or Hop Sing Rings the rest of the night

From Call Me Waiter, by Joseph Torra

There have been a few broadsheet culture-section headlines recently concerning ‘the greatest American writer you don’t know’, namely James Salter. Well, the greatest American blue-collar writer you might not have heard of is one Joseph Torra, an Italian-American habitué of the suburbs of Boston, with a taste for Iggy and the Stooges, twenty-five years of hard graft in various Boston restaurants, and a beautiful back catalogue of poetry and prose behind him.

Today Torra plays in his own garage-punk band, Box, is a lecturer in English at the University of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, has just re-released his My Ground trilogy through PFP books of Georgetown, Massachusetts, and has recently published two new books: What’s So Funny, the lonely tale of a struggling stand-up comedian, and Time Being, an exhilarating mash-up of a prose poem, set over the course of one year, 2007. Later this year he’s launching Let the Bucket Down: a Magazine of Boston Area Writing. The other lost classic you need, from his own Pressed Wafer press, is Call Me Waiter, quoted above, a ‘novel’ whose protagonist conducts himself with a wonderful clear-eyed dignity and inscrutableness while moving from restaurant to diner to bar to sea-food emporium. Published five years ago, Call Me Waiter was ahead of its time: dismissive of an emerging food fetishism, it punctured the pretentions, bad grace, downright unpleasantness, chaos and corruption of the modern-day restaurant business. A decade on, I guess Joe has to watch where he eats.

These days, of course, cookery books (TV tie-ins), support whole non-fiction publishing programmes. I don’t think they get commissioned for the writing alone. There’s probably a parallel to be drawn between the food industry’s obsession with style over content (‘drizzle’, ‘glaze’, ‘street food’, ‘baking’ as a lifestyle choice) and publishers’ increasing disregard for a book’s actual content or anyone’s ability to actually write (‘yes, but who is actually going to buy it?’). At one point in Call Me Waiter Torra’s barkeep lands a job in a faux tapas bar, decorated like a Fellini set, ‘exotic lights strung about, dozens of masks and surreal paintings hanging on the hideously painted orange-pink walls’. The ageing owner wears white jeans, floral shirts and thinks he is a celebrity; his wife has a chronic problem with coke and cava. The food is bland, comes in miniscule portions and is overpriced, but the potent Sangria and ‘atmosphere’ turns the ‘squarest of squares into hipper than hips . . .

. . . the entrée that topped all others in popularity was the salt cooked fish. A whole fish was packed in salt and cooked in the oven, placed in a wooden box that we carried to the table. At the table we set the box on a stand, broke the salt off the fish and cut off the fillets to the oohs and aahhs of the diners. The fish should have been moist and flavorful, instead it was dry and flavorless. An uninspired coriander sauce came on the side.

On a family trip to Liverpool recently, we dined in an old-school Italian restaurant on a back street. It was largely empty, the waiters and waitresses seemed to be of a certain age, and wore white shirts and black trousers or skirts. An elderly couple had come out for a meal – the staff and a few other diners sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the lady. The food was simple: meat, fish, potatoes and vegetables. Pizza or calzone. Dessert came on a trolley; three months on I’m still talking about the freshly made Manchester tart. It was nicer than anything in twenty years of publishing lunches in Covent Garden. It would be Joseph Torra’s kind of place. Simple foods – peaches, spinach, pear and gorgonzola salad, spaghetti, meatballs and tomato sauce – run through his writing, their luminous purity standing in a kind of total contrast to the fakery of much of the modern world, and the people in it. The food is clearly an Italian thing, but a searching for the simplicity of life, a free, contented, unencumbered existence where people are what they are, where you can just be what you are, is at the heart of all of Torra’s writing.

In Call Me Waiter, Torra quits Tapas, relieved never to have to hear the Gypsy Kings again, and, one Sunday afternoon, walking to a poetry reading, walks past a gas station:

. . . the smell of gas wafting about struck me in a profound way. Suddenly memories of my own days at my father’s station began to swirl around my head, in no linear manner but fleeting glimpses stirring me emotionally, the way an unexpected scent, or song on the radio can ignite. Imagine that I thought to myself, to catch those unexpected twirling recollections down on paper.

Idling in the old Books Etc on Charing Cross Road, one sunny afternoon before kids and time pressures, my better half , Angela, came across a slim paperback with a wrong-looking murky red and blue neon cover: Gas Station was published by Zoland Books of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She bought it, and I absolutely loved it: a hypnotic, beautifully composed coming of age tale, set in a world of axle grease, snow ploughs on the interstate, green ’62 Buicks, Roy Orbison and the Drifters on the tinny workshop radio, and, as a rich array of characters pass through – stopping for gas, a leak, or a windshield wipe – troubling signs that all is not right in the grown-up world.

It’s very easy to reach for those rose-tinted glasses, but it still felt at time (1997) that (as a commissioning editor) you could acquire a book because you believed it was well written, well crafted. Some of your colleagues could even see that too. And, well, there were plenty of bookshops everywhere.

Incredibly, no one had picked up the UK rights, so at Victor Gollancz I managed to buy not only Gas Station, but also the other two titles of the My Ground trilogy (My Ground and Tony Luongo), and a fourth book from Joe: A Bystander’s Scrapbook. Strongly echoing John Dos Passos, that’s an intercut of narrative of anarchist ferment, crackling jazz records, Boston punk bands and coffee and tomatoes from the old country. It more or less ends with a road trip back in Italy, living in a shack on a sunny hill by an olive grove, where Gregorio (Torra) ‘never knew such privacy and contentment’ working on an uncle’s farm, picking herbs, cherries, apples pears and figs and tending chickens. My Ground itself comes from a darker place – a forty-year old house cleaner rewinds through her mental collapse, weight problems and failed relationships, all the while chainsmoking behind the shuttered blinds of her apartment – and is Torra’s bleakest work.

His most popular work is probably Tony Luongo, the second of the trilogy: a fast, furious trip through the voracious life of its eponymous vacuum-cleaner salesman. Like the rest of Joe’s books, it’s pure, sexy, funny and full of moments of great sadness and beauty. I can imagine Jimmy Giuffre or Dave Brubeck as the soundtrack, as Tony , with a mid-sixties serotonin and caffeinated high, sells electrical goods in Pratt’s department store, Somerville, Massachusetts, ‘then another twenty minute coffee break in the afternoon and with all the standing around bullshitting with everyone especially the ladies on the first-floor lingerie and all the rude jokes you can make so when you got down to it I was only actually working five or six hours a day with nobody up my ass and all these beautiful chicks from sixteen to sixty . . .’ but then the seventies come, the burn-out, family pressures, the doomed fling with strung-out Craig from the shoe department . . .

Battered by two decades of increasingly mainstream thinking, I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to sit in a publishing meeting today and propose a novel without punctuation. But that’s a misnomer, really. You won’t find a greater page-turner without punctuation, and it means that Tony Luongo is literally unputdownable. A two-hundred page kind of wise-guy bop rhapsody, it’s a breathtaking feat of writing, and one which bears superficial similarities to Torra’s latest book, Time Being.

Perhaps more self-consciously a prose poem, and therefore more oblique, Time Being also features no punctuation: a 150-page rap that intercuts aphorism, everyday-life commentary, struggle and observation, weather outlooks, news fragments, Joe’s daughters eating ravioli for breakfast, the struggles of a poet (‘Outlaw Poetry cannot be written by someone teaching in the cushy academy’), the struggles of a relief teacher, basement jams, clearing junk in the basement, settling adopted daughters from China in Boston, simple food ingredients, spinach, tomatoes, eggplant, coffee, the war in Iraq, sunset over the Mystic River, tossing and turning, lightly sleeping, unable to switch your head off, loud Spanish neighbours drinking beer and cooking outside in winter, traffic on the interstate, clearing the basement, laundry, Sparky the dog, Kerouac’s scroll, and on and on and on – it’s Albert Ayler’s Holy Ghost to Call Me Waiter’s ‘Old World’ and ‘Roadrunner’; Blue Poles to Gas Station’s Railroad Sunset (or even Gas). There’s the shadow of Kerouac and Ginsberg’s Howl; there’s no question it’s dense, can be heavy going, it’s both somehow frenzied and calm and completely exhausting; you need your poetry head on, and you need to be in the mood; to zone in. But once you have, breaks in what seem like overlapping sentences begin to suggest themselves, you can feel your way through it, feel a change of voice or point of view coming – and there’s a flash of something beautiful on every page: an Iggy and the Stooges live at the Whisky A Go-Go poster for Father’s Day; La Contessa Bakery, last of the 1950s, closes (no more Boston cream pie, lemon turnovers or rum cakes); ‘Elegant Furniture old painted white sign with red and green letters faded peeled destined for postcard photograph enjoy it while you can . . .’

Nothing much happens in What’s So Funny: a struggling stand-up comic leaves his supermarket job, gets sad when he listens to Sun Ra, excels at winning radio phone-in competitions for free tickets, but struggles with, among other things, his ailing mother, the scars left by his father, indifferent comedy audiences, his beat-up Toyota (160,000 miles on the clock), self-esteem, modern-day bullshit, farmers markets, Facebook and finding a life partner.

That is, nothing – but everything. Nearly two decades on from Gas Station it still puzzles me that simply writing about the huge expanse of this thing called life isn’t, somehow, quite enough. Not for publishers at least. There’s no real high concept in Joe’s books – just the sadness, the beauty and the things that raise a smile from everyday life, from people’s lives. Or, from Time Being: ‘ . . . pre-conceived notions of reality seeing things that we encounter every day in a different light brown paper bag on a shelf a piece of white picket fence . . .’ a clarity and precision and a wonderful flow; a world rendered so pure, where every word has been thought through; not a word is wasted. Poetry, but also a wonderful deadpan gaze, or being, that holds firm, that never misses a beat. You are what you are, and where you come from . . .

Books Etc, where Ange found Gas Station, became Borders, which became TK Maxx, which sells brassy handbags and end of line fashion. Next door is Charing Cross Road’s first Mexican restaurant. In publishing Victor Gollancz became a fantasy and science fiction imprint. I got shunted over to non-fiction and then out of the door. It’s true: Don DeLillo and Paul Auster probably wouldn’t get a deal in a big place if they were starting out today. One of the low points of this last decade was failing to secure a UK deal for Joe for Call Me Waiter – the greatest book about working in a restaurant you’ll ever read (even better than Frederick G Dillen’s Hero). Pick up Call Me Waiter to learn the secrets of Moroccan dressing, the grim realities of falling for the cocktail waitress, or why a meal out on Valentine’s day is best avoided. And if you haven’t read the three books that make up the loosely connected My Ground trilogy, then that’s a bit like not having watched The Wire: you’re in for a real treat. The best-read literary events organiser I know, Richard Thomas, once told me, ‘The problem you have with Joseph Torra, is that he’s ten years ahead of his time.’ Well, that was a decade ago . . .