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I Wouldn’t Die, A Memoir
Franco Antonetti
Gilbert, Arizona: Via Novi Press, 2004.
$19.50, 251 pages, ISBN 0-9709112-2-X.

Mireille Quivy
Université de Rouen

I Wouldn’t Die, A Memoir, is a first work by Franco Antonetti, an Italian-American businessman born in mid-July 1944 in Rome. The book is in the form of an autobiography, exclusively written in the first person, and covers the sixty-odd years of the author’s journey into and through life. From Rome to New Jersey and then to Pennsylvania, Georgia, California and lastly Arizona, Antonetti takes the reader along the peril-ridden roads that led him from his original condition as a rather poor Italian immigrant to a deservedly high social position as one of Mac’s leading executives and then co-owner of one of the best forklift companies in the US.

Divided into fifty-three chapters almost mirroring the author’s years of age, this epic of contemporary times narrates a gradual ascension from—if not rags—let us say poverty to riches, such as one imagines of emblematic nineteenth-century pioneers of industry.

From the start Antonetti lays emphasis on the repeated attempts of the Grim Reaper to stop the course of his ill-fated life. Nearly buried alive as a baby, once the victim of a terrible bicycle accident, then left with his skull cracked and later almost drowned in a swamp of quicksand, the boy miraculously survived all the misfortunes he had to endure. Throughout the narration of these events, the voice is that of the older Antonetti, rationalizing, drawing conclusions, reminiscing and commenting at the same time, giving the reader the impression that the man was never a child, so hard his living conditions were.

My mother and father separated (divorce was not an option in Italy at that time) and she worked many hours at various jobs to keep us fed and the bills paid. [p. 5]
At this time it became clear to me that two factors governed my life: food and money. [p. 8]

He also deliberately sets himself apart, implying from the beginning that in some ways, his repeatedly missed dates with death had made him different from other boys and helped him discover who he really was, thus enabling him to cultivate uncommon talents at a very early age.

At the early age of six I realized that I was different from most of my classmates. I had ideas and a will to make them known. Early on, I was a talker. And now I learned that talking could get you into, and out of, trouble. Both ways, I was good with words, and I used them often. [p. 8]

Although not all of his actions were totally recommendable—such as collecting money for the church and keeping the best part of it for himself—Antonetti manages to ensure the reader’s tacit approval. The style is unaffected, the words are concrete, the syntax is uncomplicated and so, the flow of narration passes very easily from narrator to reader, making simplicity and apparently genuine emotion guarantee immediate empathy. Comic details occasionally come in to deflate tragic situations—“I’d lost both of my shoes and socks, but I was alive” [p. 13]; and whenever pathos menaces to settle in—“One of my deepest regrets is that I never told Zio that I loved him, and that I knew he was my father and that I was proud to be his son” [p. 18]—the lighter side soon helps relieve the tension— “some of my income as a six-year-old came from gambling” [p. 19].

In some ways, this self-styled autobiography can be read like a tale of the unexpected while at the same time developing into a very traditional story of how it is still possible to make it in twenty-first century America. Indeed, from 1954 Ellis Island to California, Antonetti’s progress follows the tracks of the old-timers and each of his stops transmutes itself into an attempt at founding a settlement, testifying to his need to shoot roots into the American soil.

Before getting off the ship we had to pack our trunk so that we could go through Ellis Island. I didn’t know it then, but our group was historic, in that we were the last people to be processed at this famous island. [pp. 24-25]

After graduating from Columbia school—and later high school—getting his driver’s license, doing an impressive number of small jobs, Antonetti got his first car. This could sound unimportant and even futile, but the crescendo tempo of the author’s life seems to be attuned to the rapid increase in power of his cars’ engines, so emblematic of material success… A 1947 Plymouth first, then a 1949 Ford with a flathead eight-cylinder engine, a 1953 Mercury, a 1957 Buick Special Convertible, first love, Bette Ann, first new car, a 1964 XL Convertible Ford with a 352 V/8. Then came the naturalization and the wedding, set for June 1965, while Antonetti was working for American Motors.

So I became Franco Antonetti, a very proud naturalized American citizen. Now they say Italian-American, but I think that is completely incorrect. I am very proud of my heritage and certainly not ashamed of being Italian or I could have changed my name to Frank when I was swearing in. So it should be American-Italian. Anyway, I was a citizen! [p. 76]

From then on, the different steps taken by Antonetti are always described in terms of profit, cost, sometimes (but very rarely) loss, and always in dollars! To be sure, the appeal of materialism and money-making were the most powerful drives in the author’s life… notwithstanding a 1985 Ambassador Rambler 990-H with a 327 engine and what not, a 1959 Rambler for Bette Ann, and a pram for the newly-born Amie Marie.

When Antonetti signed with Mac and was assigned new responsibilities as well as an opportunity to climb some more rungs up the ladder of success, the aim in sight was no other than becoming the manager of the firm. Antonetti’s appetite for power and public recognition seems therefore to have been insatiable; however, this memoir, more than just a business success story, is also the tale of an immigrant’s forty-year struggle to achieve the American Dream. In all the places he settled in and in all the jobs he had, Antonetti describes himself as someone very professional, as a success really, but also as a genuine and generous person, as much concerned about personal promotion as about the well-being of his employees and family. Though rooted in the simple values of postwar Europe and America, and testifying to an indomitable will to survive that the title establishes, the story may sometimes appear irritatingly ego-boosting and self-centered. However, at the same time, Antonetti seems to have a clear conscience of his limits, never venturing into unknown fields, never posing as a writer, even confessing that the book would certainly never have seen the light of day had not a friend of his encouraged the story-teller to transmute into a tentative writer.

Everybody has a story to tell, but in your case the story is worth telling because you came over here with sausages stuffed in your pants and now you’re a millionaire, and you did it all through hard work. What story is more American than that. It’s the American dream. [p. 248]

It is indeed. But, among other things, the book lacks a political stand. Antonetti’s picture of the US reminds one of the prototypical Land of Opportunity, a sort of gentle Utopia in which work and thrift guaranteed happiness and wealth. However, entire areas of today’s US are kept in the shade, politics, the war in Iraq, education, minorities, economics, etc., which wouldn’t surprise some Gore Vidal reflecting on the state of the nation ( “The Erosion of the American Dream,” CounterPunch, March 14, 2003) or Norman Mailer (An American Dream, Vintage, 1999).

Antonetti’s memoir is certainly worth the reading—if not as a chronicle of life in the second half of the twentieth century, certainly as the tale of a man’s persistent courage and faith in the values of the original American Dream. As such, the book can perhaps look like some sort of valuable fossil in a museum show-case, but it does one good sometimes to read simple stories about and by everyday people struggling to light up the sparkles of genius inhabiting each and everyone, and keep the flame alive.


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