Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!

By Mark Binelli. Dalkey Archive Press, $14.95 paperback.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>0/5

In 1927, two Italian-immigrant anarchists named Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomo Vanzetti were executed by the U.S. for a robbery-murder crime they probably didn’t commit. Mark Binelli’s debut book borrows the names and some biographical details from this left-leaning duo, but readers are almost immediately made aware that they’ve entered a highly fictionalized version of history. First of all, the Nic Sacco and Bart Vanzetti at the center of this droll episodic novel aren’t political agitators but slapstick comedians and silent-film stars. They’re more likely to throw pies than bombs.

A Rolling Stone contributor and first-generation American, Binelli meshes fiction and fact adroitly, giving a poignant, sometimes hilarious reflection on entertainment and the post--Ellis Island experience. His heroes—rotund funny guy Sacco and skinny straight man Vanzetti—build their chops in a down-and-out New York vaudeville club, where they become notorious for a frightening knife-throwing routine. During a film career that involves questionably titled vehicles such as Two Wops in a Jam, they go on tour as the opening act for the young Bob Hope, a flop that inaugurates a long, painfully embarrassing decline.

Binelli falls prey to a few mildly ouch-worthy jokes, but for the most part, he matches hyperkinetic storytelling with an inventive prose style, opting for a narrative cobbled out of interview excerpts, journal entries and variety-show shenanigans. The book pushes at the boundaries of history, too, making the increasingly unpopular Sacco and Vanzetti team look more and more like their real-life counterparts. Which makes sense: In Binelli’s hands, comedy and anarchy are close relatives. Both can be chaotic, and both entail a lot of hard work—far more than audiences and juries tend to realize. — Rod Smith