The Italian immigrants in this exceptional debut collide and collapse in a polyphonic narrative that is part novel, part epic prose poem spanning the first half of the 20th century . . .  The novel’s radiant beginning . . . is emblematic of both Scibona’s calibrated precision and the story’s potent humanity. This ravenous prose offers its share of challenges, but Scibona’s portrayal of the lost world of Elephant Park is a literary tour de force.


Photo: Jack Delano

Publishers Weekly

[Starred Review]


A well-crafted, unabashedly literary debut.  Scibona's prose contains the off-kilter rhythm and startling flourishes of imperfectly acquired English spoken by immigrants, and his narrative is laced with the overheard fragments—revelatory in their incomprehensibility—that James Joyce called "epiphanies." . . .  A demanding but rewarding novel.

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[A] portentous, labyrinthine debut novel of the epic search for home and the promise of a better future . . . Brooding, intermittently gorgeous, bittersweet, and devastating, Scibona’s storm-cloud novel revolves around a murder and twists together intense inner monologues and heartbreaking descriptions of smothering poverty and thankless labor, fractured families, and stabbing revelations of prejudice and racism. Add a ghost and subtle allusions to the radical changes industrialization wrought, and this is one loaded novel about twentieth-century-America’s growing pains.


Engulfing. Entangled. Fate-laden. Flinty. Dry-eyed. Memento meets Augie March.  Didion meets Hitchcock. Serpentine. Alien. American. Ohioan. McCarthyite (Cormac). Bellowed (Saul). 


The End is a throwback modernist novel. Scibona's subject is the meaning of place, time, consciousness, memory and, above all, language. Think not only Faulkner, but also T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Provincetown Arts


The author’s intelligence as an observer cannot be denied or ignored . . . [The End] brings new light into the prism of the American novel . . . This is a novel to reread, to return to many times over.  Be prepared to be stunned.

Georgia Straight (Vancouver)

For all their bombast and near-pathological love of grandiosity, the modernist writers of the early 20th century are also responsible for some remarkably simple moments of beauty.

Think of the skywriting scene in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or the final lines of W. B. Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, where the aging narrator retreats from a life of unrequited love to “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.

It’s esteemed company to be in, to be sure, but the central image in Salvatore Scibona’s debut novel, The End, is so rich and so unabashedly in the modernist vein that it could be included on that shortlist retroactively.

The scene is 1950s small-town Ohio, during a frenzied parade marking a Catholic festival. Residents of the racially divided neighbourhood of Elephant Park have packed the streets on a muggy August evening to see a statue of the Virgin get carried through the town in celebration. Rocco LaGrassa, a hard-nosed Italian baker “shaped like a lightbulb”, stands on a rooftop and watches a quick-spreading piece of gossip bring the parade to a crashing halt.

This image is the book’s centrepiece, both thematically and aesthetically, and Scibona eventually recasts the story from six different perspectives. For Rocco, it’s a painful reminder of the family that is in the process of abandoning him: “Eleventh Avenue bled people into all its tributary streets” in the aftermath, and nearby children burst into tears, with “the welched-on promise of a fireworks display…the height of betrayal”. Forty-five pages in, and already there’s an encyclopedia’s worth of heartache.

As the book progresses, Scibona pans back to show the entirety of this neighbourhood with surgical precision. His characters are lush and wonderfully complex, their secondhand English flecked with a hundred subtle imperfections, and the central tragedy that links these disparate citizens together is nothing short of devastating.

The End takes one more nod from its modernist predecessors in its perfectly formed architecture, which is on display as much as any plot point. It takes those quietly powerful moments and assembles them into something truly monumental.

—Michael Hingston

Possibly the only novel I’ve ever read that legitimately deserves to be called Bellovian. And that’s no small claim. (Also further proof . . . that Graywolf puts out some of the best, and best looking, literature today.)

Kenyon Review

Deseret News

(Salt Lake City)

A debut novel of impressive proportions . . . a fascinating story. This is the kind of book in which the reader loses himself because he becomes so much a part of the world he is reading about  . . . The writing is beautiful. The chances seem good that this talented novelist will still be writing major novels in 20 to 30 years.

[R]hapsodic and interior, inventive in its language and structure, and unflinching in its portrayal of the desolation and disenchantment that afflicts low-luck citizens. . . .

Part of the might of Scibona’s story resides in its steadfast refusal to be easily summarized.  The six key characters traverse loops of time and location, and not always smoothly, since Scibona cares more about Jamesian interiority and the moral arithmetic of D.H. Lawrence than he does detective tale plotting.  Still, there is a calamitous mystery in the lungs of this novel; one goes from chapter to chapter expecting horrendous spiritual crimes to cripple all involved and perhaps usher in the apocalypse . . . .

The diction is both unexpected and exact (typically a poet’s trick)—“bepuddled alleys,” “caged-in children,” “yellow-dark,” “dread leapt”—and that metaphor “a colossus in a mausoleum of innocents” is an eerie brush of brilliance . . . .

Scibona has shaped a searing portrait of an entire Ohio community much like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, although Elephant Park is a more menacing locale than Anderson’s middle-class would-be utopia . . .

Scibona’s story pivots on spiritual malaise instead of what Emerson called “Man Thinking.”  Bellow cares considerably less for the spirit than he does for the mind.  But when Scibona’s people delve into intellectual matters, that delving is always in service of spirit . . . .

Scibona excels at dialogue, and not the hardboiled breed of banter that wins Richard Price and Elmore Leonard so much praise, but dialogue as Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov, and Samuel Beckett understood it: verbal interaction is for dramatizing confusion, for revealing the individual mindscape of the character speaking, and not for advancement of plot or the summing up of events.  Anthony Trollope, in his Autobiography, believes that dialogue is “agreeable” only if “it tends in some way to the telling of the main story.”  Many a new writer would benefit from that guidance, but Trollope did not mean that dialogue should turn into exegesis or take on the work of narration.  In Scibona, as in Kafka, Chekhov, and Beckett, the dialogue tends to the narrative engine, but only insofar as the characters’ inner bedlam is necessarily tied to that engine . . . .

Combine Scibona’s themes of the immigrant experience, ethnicity, spirituality, and the dreams of the lowly, and America itself emerges as the real central character of his narrative.  As the widow Mrs. Marini remarks to herself: “America is the deep.”  Deep enough to kill, deep enough to save . . . .

Scibona has crafted a masterful novel of serious consequence, a novel unafraid to split into the breastplate of humankind and aim a floodlight at the demons dancing there.  If the poetic truths and dark spiritual scope of this novel disconcert you, fine. But they will also remind you that the novel is thriving beyond the bottom-line-bound New York  publishing industry, where so many of the acquisitions, especially of debut novels, are being made by marketing committees instead of by individual editors with literary inclinations.  The legendary Maxwell Perkins shrieks from his grave.  But he doesn’t shriek only. Sometimes you can hear him push out a sigh of relief.

The Southern Review

Kirkus Reviews

Cedar Rapids Gazette

Salvatore Scibona opens his debut novel, The End, with a spectacular sentence that describes one of the book’s key characters in impressively complete detail . . .  It alerts the reader that he or she is entering a fictional space in the company of an assured, slightly show-offy narrative voice.  By the time the period arrives and the reader gets to take a full breath, the hook has been set.

A page and a half later, Scibona, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, devastates the reader with a simple, five-word sentence.

Thought he was good on the first page?  Wait until he pulls the rug out from under you on the third. 

The End is a complex novel difficult to describe succinctly.  It centers on a single day—August 15, 1953—in an Italian neighborhood in an Ohio community.  Scibona intertwines the stories of six characters with his deeply realistic yet deeply stylized prose.

The book’s complexity is of an appealing variety, requiring the reader’s close attention.  It fully rewards that attention as the various threads are pulled apart and brought back together.  The book contains much sadness leavened with the beauty of Scibona’s craftsmanship . . . 

The reader . . . desire[s] that the book might not end at all.

American Book Review

[H]ard-headed yet lovely, precise yet inventive . . . delicious turns of phrase, combining skewed aphorism, urbanity with all the senses open, Roman Catholic arcana and Southern Italian superstition, and plain old perspicuity about the human animal as it ages and changes.  Physical description, too, proves on the money and felicitous.

. . . Another endorsement, from ZZ Packer, makes the daunting comparison to Saul Bellow—daunting, yet notably fitting.  Granted, The End isn’t set in Chicago, where Bellow drew his inspiration. It’s Cleveland for Scibona, but he fleshes out a scrabbling immigrant Cleveland, an Italian-American neighborhood he calls “Elephant Park.”  Both Augie March and his author would recognize the place, and not for nothing does the new novel’s central date fall in 1953, the year that Augie’s Adventures saw print.  Scibona knows the big shoulders on which he’s set up his own tuner, the better to bring in his own metropolitan oratorio.

Los Angeles Times

Magill Book reviews

Salvatore Scibona's debut novel, The End, is set in an exquisitely rendered Italian immigrant community in early 20th century Ohio and does not open up so much as catch and slowly reel in . . . The title itself points overtly to the novel's heart: The final chapters carry more than their share of emotional heft.

Boston Globe

Anyone with family knows by instinct that what physicists say is true: Time's arrow doesn't fly straight. Glance at your father, and you can sometimes glimpse the future. Gaze at your niece or nephew and there -- in their smiles, their honking guffaws -- is your childhood.

In his lyrical debut novel, The End, Salvatore Scibona brilliantly captures how this time warp lurks at the center of family life. Set in Elephant Park, Cleveland, on an August day in 1953, the book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, brilliantly shows how even immigration cannot sever the looping ties of blood.

A sprawling cast of Italian-Americans celebrates the Feast of the Ascension under the khaki, coal-scorched skies of Ohio. Many of them are first-generation citizens, so new to the country that they haven't voted; most were so determined to get here that they left family behind.

America was supposed to be a new beginning for Scibona's characters, but unexpected losses and terrible compromises give it the feel of an ending. Rocco LaGrassa, for instance, abandoned family in Italy, stopped writing weekly letters home to his mother, and settled in Cleveland. He worked like a donkey, seven days a week, 16 hours a day, to get a bakery off the ground.

As the novel begins, however, LaGrassa learns that his eldest son was probably killed during a high-stakes prisoner swap in faraway North Korea. For the first time in three decades, LaGrassa shuts down the bakery. His son is alive somewhere, he believes, in spite of the odds. It's just a place beyond this world.

Like one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fictions, The End is riddled with biblical losses like this, but also punctured by wormholes to other worlds in which those losses are revealed to merely be a kind of transformation. Ghosts, phantoms, and voices in the night speak as loud or sometimes louder than the actual characters. Keeping up with the novel's earthy mysticism can be a challenge, especially as Scibona's narrative skitters restlessly from one character to the next -- a jeweler, an abortionist, a teenage boy -- inhabiting their lives, refracting their concerns backward through time where on occasion they overlap.

As in so many immigrant novels, there are conflicts between fathers and sons, tensions between the mores of the old world and the new. But unlike so many of these fictions, The End aims for a kind of cosmology. After a terrible accident, one of the characters muses about how it is so often not choice that bangs us sideways into a new world.

Time and again in The End, Scibona's characters are jostled sideways only to reencounter their past -- or even their parents' past -- in a way that reassures and gives a shambolic order to the universe . . .

In aiming to trace elements more than sentimental about relationships, though, Scibona has bravely reached beyond the familiar tricks of the realistic family novel. He has unleashed metaphors and ideas that have their own dark logic.

In his first novel, The End, Salvatore Scibona masterfully recounts the journeys and life stories of Italian American immigrants during the early 1900’s . . . The complexity in character development, along with the experimentation in dialogue, narration, and chronology, will ensure a place for Scibona in American literature.

Harvard Review

Though wide-ranging in time and place, the scope of his novel isn’t what makes Scibona a fine writer, it’s the perfect tuning of his characters.  None of us is ever entirely sure of our motivations, and Scibona uses that uncertainty to create characters who feel anxiously true.

The Literary Review

Omniscient narrators—à la, The Victorians—often come off in contemporary literature as an author doing an impression of an author.  But for The End, Salvatore Scibona’s debut novel, the skillfully executed old-fashioned narrator allows the sweeping story, which focuses around a street carnival in Elephant Park, Ohio, August 15, 1953, to make all the right twists and turns . . .

[Scibona] is a formalist, and his language persistently reveals something new.  The characters are almost grotesque; Rocco LaGrassa is introduced as “ a man in the shape of a lightbulb . . . the eyes goonish, unnaturally pale and blue, set deep in the skull in swollen raincloud pouches, the eyes of one poisoned with lead,” and at first glance, even “on the inside” they are horrid.  Ironically, the most fiercely attractive character is perhaps the most grotesque: Costanza Marini, a wizened  abortionist, seemingly frigid to her loved ones.  She is abrasive and often intentionally mean.  But her strength, and her stubborn lack of self-knowledge, set her apart.  Her heart is revealed, even if not to herself.  And this exposes Scibona’s desire to explore the perversities and exotic ugliness of life, to reveal “the mysteries” of humanity . . .

History is fraught, in Scibona’s world, with racism, violence, moral repugnancy; but it is also filled with people, who for the most part, no matter their sins, are trying to love each other, or trying to be loved . . . The characters in Elephant Park want to be remembered, but they understand the system of history too well.  Even if your name goes down, it is unlikely anyone will really know who you are.

Ohioana Quarterly

In the world Scibona creates, as in myth, the fantastic collides with the real.  This dazzling and difficult multilayered work is well worth reading for its brilliant exploration of, among other things, the loneliness humans feel, caught in the web of time.

Italian Americana

From the masterful first paragraph, which limns in epic mode Rocco LaGrassa, “the baker of Elephant Park,” to the last notes of the abortionist Costanza Marini’s confessional monologue, this debut novel implicates the reader in the sins of fallen humanity—“e se non piangi, di che pianger suoli?”  Scibona’s unsentimental gaze explores the moral reality of characters who contemplate the impossibility of the task they have been set by being born: to live in a world at once manifestly spiritual and sundered from the divine.  Beginning on the Feast of the Assumption in 1953, the day Rocco learns his middle son Mimmo has died after release from a POW camp in Korea, the narrative cuts forward and backward in time and space, as far back as Marini’s exodus from Lazio in 1876 and to Rocco’s youth in Sicily.  Their stories and those of Carmelina (Lina) and Enzo Mazzone, their son Ciccio, and the jeweler and rapist known only by the epithet “The Forest Runner,” weave together into a dazzlingly refracted whole with versions of the same critical events . . .

Lina, who does piecework as a seamstress, returns from across town: “Because Lina had been late, she had no choice of jobs and was saddled for the ride home [on the trolley] with fourteen yards of damask and heavy chenille fabric, which she carried away in a big, awkward, burlap, vegetable bag.”  This embodied truth cannot be reduced to symbol: we read with pity the spirit made flesh, the gravity exerting its pull on us as on her.  When she passes a man on the bridge, a jeweler who sees “a whistling, unlucky woman he has never met before, with a burlap onion sack on her shoulder,” and asks himself, “Does he dare follow this woman home . . . ?” we are frozen in dread by that word “unlucky” and by the inevitability of the outcome.  The “end” of the title thus takes on spiritual meanings: of intentionality, of fate, of dramatic temporal closure, of death, and of ultimacy.

A scrim of tremendous seriousness hangs behind every scene, sustained by Scibona’s polymorphous language.  His sentences can approach poetry, or be as guileless as razor blades: “Enzo inspected the boys creased and unpolished calfskin shoes. If he had one wish, it would be to get into the boy’s dreams and trouble them.” . . .

Bathed in such recognition, the book is painful to read, yet in the end, as the translator John D. Sinclair said of Dante’s depiction of Ugolino, Scibona “penetrates the heart of the sinner [who is] restored for his sheer human worth to the human fellowship.”

—Gina Maranto

ZZ Packer, author of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Like no other contemporary writer, Salvatore Scibona is heir to Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, and Virginia Woolf, and his masterful novel stands as proof of it—a concordance of the immigrant experience from the beautiful to the brutal and everything in between. Each character stands both illuminated like a saint and obscured in shadows of past lives, debts and secrets. In The End, all the “beautiful caves” of the characters’ pasts connect, and “each comes to daylight at the present moment” in ways that leave one touched, surprised and amazed.

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Madeleine is Sleeping and Ms. Hemple Chronicles

Salvatore Scibona has written a ravishing book: radiant, wise, and wonderfully idiosyncratic. It is thrilling to see the immigrant novel reinvented with such originality and deep feeling, where the language catches fire on every page. As much a metaphysical novel as a historical one, The End not only follows its searching characters as they travel across countries, states, and city blocks, but also charts hauntingly the journeys of their souls. Their arrival, in the form of this astonishing book, is cause for celebration.

Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Maytrees

A masterful novel set amid racial upheaval in 1950’s America during the flight of second-generation immigrants from their once-necessary ghettos. Full of wisdom, consequence and grace, Salvatore Scibona’s radiant debut brims with the promise of a remarkable literary career, of which The End is only the beginning.

Adam Haslett, author of You Are Not a Stranger Here and Union Atlantic

The End is an ambitious book in both scope and structure.  Scibona does a remarkable job of summoning a time and place not only through the exactitude of his descriptions but by so convincingly inhabiting the interior worlds of his many characters, whose pathos he manages to get right down into the grammar of the sentences that compose them.  Add to this the overall verve and playfulness of the language here and it reminds one of the Wandering Rocks chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses: one city’s compendium of souls offered up to the reader for companionship by the force of a writer’s imagination.