Great ways to discover authors abound. One of them is to peruse the book review section of a men's magazine. I read about the American release of Niccolò Ammaniti's sophomore novel, I'll Steal You Away, in GQ or Details (I read them for the articles. The true crime articles). Perhaps the reviewer who turned me on to it gave the copy of the galley I bought from the reviewers' books section in the basement of New York's immensely wonderful Strand Bookstore.
I'll Steal You Away features two protagonists, both of whom hail from a small-town Italy that rarely appears in Hollywood films. Their lives are gritty; Pietro Moroni, a twelve-year-old who furiously bikes away from bullies and struggles in school, and Graziano Biglia, who has spent the last dozen years or so away from his hometown seducing a long string of women, finally to have his heart broken. He slinks home and we follow him as he moves back into his mother's house. His is a story of a fall from empty glamour and notoreity, and Pietro's one of struggling to be noticed. Ammaniti invents quests for them that inject suspense into the novel, and it becomes a meaty character-driven page turner. Pietro especially captures the sympathy of the reader, and we long for the working-class characters to win victories, no matter how small.
Smitten, I bought two other Ammaniti books, I'm Not Scared, his first novel - which made him a star in Italy, largely because of the movie adaptation - and Crossroads, alternatively published as As God Commands. I'm Not Scared takes place in a similar small Italian town laid out among farms and inhabited by a struggling populace. The book's scope is small compared to its two follow-up efforts. A nine-year-old boy, Michele, makes a horrific discovery while exploring with his friends. The events that follow, as you can imagine from the furtive title, place Michele in danger and unravel the terrible secrets of what he has found. I read this book in one day at the beach; that's not a knock against Ammaniti's intelligence or literary merit. It's lighter than the other two books, but far closer to the thriller genre, and less character-driven and introspective.
As God Commands surpasses the other novels and combines Ammaniti's talents for suspense, impossibly sympathetic characters, and painting a desolate but intoxicating backdrop for his story. Cristiano, slightly older than the protagonists of the first two books at thirteen, lives a bleak life with his alcoholic neo-Nazi father. This might sound like the ramping up of a familiar formula, but I like to think of it as an expansion; As God Commands delves ever deeper into the psychology of the region Ammaniti depicts. The suspense here - over a robbery plot concocted by Cristiano's father and his slightly less gross friends - combines sheer thrill with the overwhelming despair of avoidable and dangerous dilemmas. It's the richest of the three novels and the author has clearly repaired the respective nonfatal pitfalls of I'm Not Scared (lack of complexity) and I'll Steal You Away (occasional tangents that would fall prey to a discriminating editor).
So where to start, if you're interested? I read them in the order discussed above, and even though I'd consider I'll Steal You Away the weakest of the three, I eagerly sought out the other two. Start with that one if you like a good character study. If you're a mystery nut or you just want a quick sample, go with I'm Not Scared. To read this guy at his best, and to take on a book that will hook and haunt you, order As God Commands. But Crossroads, though beautifully bound and rendered in marvelous single-quote, extra-u British English, costs a mere penny from third-party sellers.