By Kris Herndon
In case you hadn’t heard, Vincent Graziano, an area funeral home director who is also a novelist, has a new book out. The Romeo Club, released in January, picks up the story of Frankie Grace, who is also the protagonist of Graziano’s first two novels, Die Laughing and The Family Jewels.
Fans of Graziano’s first two books will not be disappointed. Funny dialogue, Graziano’s first strength, is in no short supply. Nor is his second strength: the ability to evoke an authentic sense of place. Graziano grew up in Manhattan’s famed Little Italy, and Coxe & Graziano, the family business he operates, has a Greenwich location, as well as one in Westchester county. Little Italy served as the backdrop for the first two books; for this one, Grace has relocated to the fictional suburb of Inlet Cove.
Frankie Grace has lost none of his humor, but he now has grey in his hair, a wife who summers in Florida, and a wiser outlook on life. In his spare time, he hangs out with three good friends in an Italian restaurant on the Connecticut – New York border, eating Italian food, drinking wine, and recycling old inside jokes, with a generous helping of wit and sarcasm.
This group of friends is what lends the book its name: “Romeo” is an acronym for “Restless Old Men Eating Out,” and Paradise, the fictional restaurant where they gather, is so vividly described that this reviewer put a decent amount of effort into pondering which one of several area eateries it might be based on. Paradise is an authentic but not-too-fancy family Italian place, named for its owner, Johnny Paradise, whose nephew Nino just happens to be visiting from the Old Country.
Hijinks ensure. The plot follows the fate of a member of the Romeo Club: one Tim Collins, a very unlucky Irish-American who manages to piss off four international crime syndicates at once, while simultaneously attracting the attention of the Feds. Lucky for Tim, his best friends are three very savvy Italian-Americans, including Grace himself. And though Collins annoys them all (and somewhat seems to deserve his fate), they’ll stop at nothing to help him.
However implausible the plot gets at times, Graziano has a sure hand with believable details to keep it interesting. A wife who hands her husband divorce papers as he’s lying in a hospital bed after Mob bullets nearly took his life; an artisan of the funeral trade who can fix any corpse, no matter how gruesome, for an open casket; an attempted hit that brings a restaurant a windfall of new customers – and that’s just the first hundred pages.
Graziano seeks to entertain first and foremost; though the death of a U.S. Veteran early on is treated with a note of somber respect that leavens the humor, and a poignant motif recurs when the characters ponder how their paths in life differ from what they might have envisioned, most of the plot is played strictly for laughs. But that’s not a weakness; and the central friendships will have you appreciating your own inner circle of best friends – the ones you’d trust if, having got in over your head with gambling debts and pissed off the Mob, you found you needed to fake your own demise.