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Mon December 10, 2007
The Bellmaker's House
But the novel's great strength is in the freshness of the material, the subject matter. As a number of us have been saying for some time, there are more stories in Alabama than high school football, losing your virginity, and the relationship between the races. This, like Roy Hoffman's fine novel of the Jewish-American experience in Mobile, Chicken Dreaming Corn, is another piece of the Alabama mosaic
By Don Noble
The bellmaker's house of the title is a large stone house on the seaside in northern Greece, looking out toward the island of Skiathos. When the protagonist of this novel was a poor little boy, growing up in the village, the schoolmaster lived there, having moved back after decades of living and teaching in western Europe. The teacher, a mentor and an inspiration to young Nikos, teaches French and English and plants in Nikos the desire to travel, to see far-off lands, to leave the provincial little village and see the world.
Nikos Pilios, like many another Greek, goes to sea, sails the globe, jumps ship in America, where he marries Margaret, a Baptist girl in Mobile, and, after working for a ship repair company, goes into business for himself, as Greeks are wont to do.
The bulk of this novel is the tale of Nikos Pilios working very hard. He struggles to maintain and expand his business even at the expense of time with his wife, his three daughters, even to the point of exhaustion and sickness.
When he visits his home village, Taxiarhis, after twelve years away, his family is grumpy because he left, because it seems the village wasn't "good enough for him," because he doesn't have a son, because his wife and daughters don't speak Greek. In Mobile, his wife is grumpy because he works all the time and doesn't show interest in joining the country club set. Nick is catching it from every direction.
In fact, during the 1970s and 80s of this novel, the home village is thriving. Nikos thinks to show off his great success in America but, ironically, as in places like Provence and Tuscany, property values are soaring. Germans will pay a fortune for an old barn, and everybody now runs a taverna, a small hotel, or has rooms to let. There is more obvious prosperity in Taxiarhis than in Mobile. Despite all this, Nick buys the bellmaker's house, to demonstrate his own prosperity and to use one day as a vacation home.
But Nikos perseveres. He is determined, even one would say stubborn to pig-headed. His business thrives. He joins AHEPA, the American Hellenic Educational Protective Association, and is persuaded to become the chairman of Greek Fest, the money-raising Greek food festival in Mobile, where the foreigners?to Greeks all non-Greeks everywhere are foreigners?line up by the thousands to buy souvlakia and dolmathes and are bewitched by oregano.
This is a first novel and rough in places. Comma usage is odd and the book needed more editing and proofing. There are too many descriptions of business deals, ship repair contracts, drunk and/or lazy or thieving employees, the nagging Anglo wife who doesn't understand the Greek male mentality, and so on.
But the novel's great strength is in the freshness of the material, the subject matter. As a number of us have been saying for some time, there are more stories in Alabama than high school football, losing your virginity, and the relationship between the races. This, like Roy Hoffman's fine novel of the Jewish-American experience in Mobile, Chicken Dreaming Corn, is another piece of the Alabama mosaic. Pitsios captures, accurately I think, both the culture of the Greek-American community in Mobile and the rapidly changing life back in the Greek village, with globalism and specifically the EU bringing not just tourist dollars but huge improvements in infrastructure and the expansion of life's possibilities for many Greeks.
Pitsios gets most of this dead right: the attitudes, the food, the accents, Greek Orthodox religion, male-female relationships here and in the old country. I would be surprised if Pitsios writes more novels, although of course he may. This seems to me to be the tale that Pitsios, himself of course a Greek-American in Mobile who sailed for decades as an engineer in the merchant marine, has to tell. And I for one am pleased to read about pastitsiou instead of barbecue.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.