Conversations with Felice Picano, should you be lucky enough to have one, are always fascinating experiences because you never know who will show up in them. The guy knows everyone. On both coasts. So, as much as I enjoy reading his fiction, I really love reading his recollections of his time in New York City. And his latest, Nights at Rizzoli, is a gem from start to finish.
Rizzoli, for those who don’t know, is–or was–a Fifth Avenue bookstore which was a magnet for book-buying celebrities. Picano worked there as a sales clerk beginning in the early 1970’s, meeting such luminaries as Maria Callas, Jerome Robbins, Elton John, Jackie Onassis, Salvador Dali, S.J. Perelman, Mick Jagger, Richard Thomas (remember him?), and Rose Kennedy, in one of the most memorable encounters in the book.
Lest I mischaracterize the book, however, this is not just a collection of anecdotes–though Felice has many of those. Instead, it’s a series of finely-drawn cameos set among the large backdrop of New York City in the 1970’s. This was a time of great struggle and immense learning. His brush caresses the intellectual and sexual climate of the times, which was heady in ways NYC hadn’t been before and certainly not since. Although it’s nearly a cliche–okay, definitely a cliche–the city, along with Felice himself, are the two constant characters in this book. They are the protagonist and the antagonist, though I’ll leave it to you to decide who is who.
Picano was not the only employee of Rizzoli, though, and his characterizations of his fellow employees–the manager, Mr. M, and head clerk Antonio in particular–are wonderful example of the fine detailing he embellishes his people with. They jump out of the book at you, nearly overshadowing the celebrities they all serve. By the end of the book, you know them as well as if you’d worked with them yourself.
Nights at Rizzoli is perfectly crafted memoir, as evocative of the time in which it is set as it is of the celebrities which populate it. Highly recommended.
© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler
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