Today I bring you a short read, but a very moving one, by an author I discovered last year and I’ve talked about before, although this is a bit different.
Pasta Mike: A Story of Friendship & Loss by Andrew Cotto
Mike O’Shea and Andy Cotto knew each other their entire lives. Born days apart on the same block, baptized in the same water, the two friends were inseparable growing up and into adulthood.
After celebrating their 40th birthdays together, Mike falls ill and dies shortly after. The impact on Andy is enormous, and he spirals into a depression that threatens everything he holds dear.
Through memory and support, Andy is able to reconcile his grief and appreciate the power of male friendship and the beauty of life.
Pasta Mike is a testimony to the bonds men share and the vulnerabilities beneath the stoic surface.
About the author:
Andrew Cotto is an award-winning author and a regular contributor to The New York Times. He has written for Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, La Cucina Italiana, AARP, Rachael Ray In Season, Maxim, The Huffington Post, the Good Men Project, Salon, Conde Nast Traveler, Italy Magazine and more. Andrew has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
I first came across this author thanks to Rosie’s team and to his novel Black Irish Blues: A Caesar Stiles Mystery (a pretty peculiar small-town noir novel, here is my review), and because that was the second novel in that series, I went on to read the first, Outerborough Blues. A Brooklyn Mystery (another pretty special noir novel, this one set in New York, which I reviewed here). And I love the way the author recreates the atmosphere and the vibe of the settings of his stories (be it a district of New York or a small town), imagines compelling and unforgettable characters whose actions and words keep us glued to the pages, and as an added attraction for foodies, there is always a fair amount of cooking and juicy descriptions of delicious dishes thrown in as well.
Pasta Mike, although in a totally different genre (I found it listed under biographical fiction), shares many of those characteristics. We get a beautiful picture of what Queens was like when the characters were children, in the late sixties and early seventies, (and there is still some of that left at the time the current events are set), with some descriptions of other parts of the city, and recent events. Andy is a walker, and we accompany him in his strolls that help him reflect on things and reach new insights. I’ll talk about Mike a bit later, but although we only get to briefly glimpse at other characters (this is a novella and pretty short), we have memorable grandmothers, mothers who bond over their pregnancy, girlfriends, wives, neighbours, shop owners, and bartenders, all of them real people we could meet and would be happy to have a chat with. And there is plenty of talk of food and cooking (mostly Italian), as those are not only an important part of Andy and Mike’s culture and way of life and are strongly linked to their childhood, but are also comforting and, for Andy, cooking is a creative and therapeutic activity.
The description gives readers a big clue that this is a story that, at least in part, is about the author, and about his dearest friend from childhood. I am aware that some of the details have been changed, so I don’t know how far the story strays from the actual history of the two friends, but that is inconsequential. The story would be moving even if it were about fictional characters, but knowing it is based on reality makes it more powerful. Because, although things are slowly changing, the social expectations of what a man’s behaviour should be like, and how he should react to the loss of a best friend, would dictate keeping up a façade of strength and stoicism, and never digging into or expressing one’s feelings. Yes, perhaps getting drunk, perhaps sharing amusing anecdotes with other friends, and probably feeling sad in private, but never talking about it. But falling to pieces completely, having to rebuild himself, and writing about it… That is not so common. And it does take courage.
I loved Mike. He is a fabulous character, larger than life (physically as well as for all his qualities, his charm, his kindness, and his heroism. He is a true friend to his friends, and there are so many of those…), and as sometimes happens with our best and oldest friends, even though Andy and he had separate lives and did very different things when they met it was as if they had only said goodbye to each other a few hours earlier. The story is told in the first person by Andy, a teacher, and a writer, and that is evidenced by the beautiful descriptions of places, memories, and feelings. The story starts at a particular point, which becomes very significant for Andy, as it will be the last good memory he got to share with Mike, and then we follow his wandering mind back and forth, learning about their childhood —the everyday and the momentous events—, their adulthood, and we learn more about both, especially about Andy. His life had already undergone major changes before he lost his friend, but realising that he wouldn’t have Mike by his side to help him carry on comes as a shock to him, and this novel is both a memorial to his friend and a way to process his feelings and to share with others that process. There are no easy recipes and no rights or wrongs when it comes to dealing with loss, but brushing it under a carpet or drowning it in a bottle of alcohol are not the best options.
I don’t have any negative things to say about this novella, other than it is quite short, and as warnings, there is plenty of drinking of alcohol; if you’re on a diet, the food descriptions might be too mouthwatering to resist; and readers who have lost someone dear and near might want to be cautious. I know some people prefer to avoid reading about the subject, while others find it helpful. That is something only each person knows. I think many people will easily identify with the feelings of loss, hopelessness, and helplessness of the main character, with his sense of shame at his reaction and his inability to carry on with life as normal, and with his difficulty talking about it and seeking help. The book has many funny and heartwarming moments, and I would not class it as sad or melancholy overall, although there are very moving and poignant moments as well, as can be imagined.
As this is a short novella, I’ll only share one quote, but any prospective readers can easily check a sample of it.
There was nothing to do, not eat, drink, nor anything else available in the most vibrant city in the world, paralyzed emotionally and spiritually as I was, so I trudged closer and closer to home in what felt like a death march, the cold creeping into my bones with its sights on my soul.
I recommend this book to anybody looking for a short and compelling read, especially if you love a New York setting, like first-person biographical fiction, and appreciate moving stories of male friendship. Oh, and to Italian food fans.
Thanks to Rosie and her team for all the support, thanks to the author, for another wonderful book, and especially thanks to all of you for being there, for reading, for commenting, for sharing, and for the support. Stay safe and keep smiling.