Garbage Night at the Opera is writer Valerie Fioravanti’s debut short story collection. Set in Brooklyn, New York, the book follows the trajectory of two successive generations of a large family of Italian descent. At the heart of the family are several sisters who, as they enter adulthood, live on and raise their own families in the building where they grew up. The sisters appear and reappear throughout the stories in the many roles their lives demand of them: as sisters, wives, mothers, aunts, and so on. Tracking the family tree through the book’s jumble of characters and relationships can be difficult at times, but this is fortunately not necessary to the understanding of the story lines.
At its best, Fioravanti’s work features characters with compelling motivations who make surprising decisions, and several of the stories included here are excellent. “Garbage Night at the Opera,” “After Jude,” and “Seventeen” are all standouts. Some of the other stories are lessened by action that plays out passively in back story, and by occasional lapses in point of view. However, the arrangement allows the fourteen individual stories to add up to a collection that’s larger in whole; Garbage Night at the Opera’s first story focuses on a young girl named Franca and her father, Mossimo, and the book’s trajectory reintroduces the father-daughter pair at the end of the book, much later in life. Other characters reappear similarly. Read in order, the stories cumulate in a well-rounded anthropology of the family and the neighborhood where they live, as the neighborhood suffers the vagaries of time and undergoes economic and demographic changes following successive closings of local factories and breweries.
Narrated with deadpan frankness, Fioravanti’s characters’ lives are shaped by economic hardship, leading to unemployment, alcoholism, strained romantic relationships, sexual violence, teen delinquency and other troubles. These themes will be familiar to readers of Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, and other American canonical short story writers who have long portrayed the masculine response to hard times in their work. Fioravanti’s stories, however, tend to prioritize the female rather than the male point of view, which offers a refreshing counterpoint perspective on familiar themes.
The tight focus on a single extended family also allows for occasional moments of tragic compassion, as when Rose Anna sees her niece’s bicycle, a luxury she can’t afford for her own children, and wonders “how many cigarettes it would take to buy something that fine, to see her own child’s face riding by looking so red-cheeked and happy. Sometimes Rose Anna wanted better for her children so bad she wished she’d never had them.” Fioravanti’s women deliver bouts of devastating honesty that elevate the characters emotionally. Garbage Night at the Opera was selected by Jacquelyn Mitchard as winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction sponsored by BkMk Press, and is overall a strong debut collection.