On loan to California: Author Joe Di Prisco brings Brooklyn storytelling roads west
When he was ten years old, Joe Di Prisco was walking toward his grandparents’ East Islip farm with his father and brother when they saw that the house was surrounded by police. Joe’s dad turned and said: “Go back to the house and don’t take sh*t from nobody” and then he jetted off into the woods. Joe’s dad was a con man, bookmaker and informer, now in flight from both the FBI and police.
Months later, the family was off to California without explanation, meeting up with his dad at a gas station and beginning a new life on the west coast. Joe’s life as a writer launched right then.
Di Prisco says his writing life is about flight, abandonment, and secrecy. He recounts his family’s stories in his memoirs, “Subway to California” (2014) and “Pope of Brooklyn” (2017), both available from Rare Bird Books. From Humboldt Street in Greenpoint to Berkeley, California, Di Prisco brings old school Brooklyn to explore new California story territory.
Now, in 2020, Di Prisco returns with his sixth novel, “The Good Family Fitzgerald” (Rare Bird Books), a saga that intertwines the mob and Catholic Church, with a large complicated Irish and Italian family. Di Prisco states that much of his work revolves around the mystery of the family, whether that’s through organized crime or the church, both seemingly different forms of the dysfunctional family.
For those unfamiliar with Di Prisco’s story, it’s one that’s stranger than fiction. From the early family run-ins with the law, it’s moved in multiple directions. In “Subway to California,” Joe writes, “For me, there were always more than two roads. For me, the roads appeared like one of those manic Italian roundabouts, where there are fifty signs, including six different and conflicting pointers to Rome. All roads lead to Rome, so they say, and they are right. I took one road. I took them all, I kept going in circles, often mistaking motion for progress and desire for direction. I don’t know exactly how, but somehow I got somewhere.”
Those roads, that somewhere, led Di Prisco to become a Christian Brothers monk after high school, as Brother Joseph Di Prisco. He also was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, leading a takeover of the administrative building at Syracuse University. Joe went back west for graduate school, enrolling in the English Department at UC Berkeley and eventually completing his PhD with a dissertation on Mark Twain’s work in the 1890s.
During that period of graduate study, Joe worked as a waiter, opened a few restaurants on his own, and began a career as a professional blackjack player under the tutelage of the legendary Al Francesco. Joe’s picture was posted in a casino in Sun City, South Africa for counting cards. In fact, Joe recalls miniature computers built into his shoes during international gambling trips. And considering his family background, and his involvement in Italian restaurants, it may come as no surprise that he became the prime suspect in a federal racketeering investigation, essentially a fishing expedition with no catch.
Di Prisco taught English at middle schools, high schools, and colleges for twenty years. During that time teaching, he published “Field Guide to the American Teenager” (Da Capo Press, 2000) and “Right From Wrong: Instilling a Sense of Integrity in Your Child” (Da Capo Press, 2002).
Di Prisco then embarked on a career in not-for-profits. He’s now the founding chair of the Simpson Literary Project, which began as a collaboration between the Lafayette Library and UC Berkeley English Department. The Project sponsors writing workshops for places such as Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall, Girls Inc. of Alameda County, and Northgate High School.
“Simpsonistas” volumes highlight the work of the organization, from professional writers to high school workshop students. Simpson also has a writer-in-residence program, as well as the $50,000 Joyce Carol Oates Prize for midcareer fiction. The 2020 winner is Daniel Mason, author of “The Winter Soldier” (2018) and “A Registry of My Passage on the Earth” (2020).
The governing principle of the Simpson Literary Project is “storytelling is the foundation of a literate, democratic society.” Di Prisco’s life testifies to that storytelling foundation: a lot of stories and a lot of roads taken.
Joe’s dad usually responded to his son’s repeated questions by saying, straight out of old Brooklyn, “Whaddayou writing a book?” The answer to that question is an emphatic yes. “The Good Family Fitzgerald” is Di Prisco’s 14th book, and it continues his reckoning with the Church, the Mob and the Family.
A Brooklynite on loan to California, Joe Di Prisco cites Boccacio’s “The Decameron” as one of his recent inspirations during the pandemic: “The opening line is ‘The human thing is to have compassion for the afflicted.’ I believe one way of showing compassion for those in distress is through storytelling … To make people see something new.”
A Brooklyn boy who took his own subway to California, Di Prisco’s work continues to bring compassion and heart to new storytelling roads out west.
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