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BOOK REVIEW Tarantella
by Liz Baudler

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By Scot T. O'Hara

$18.95; OhBoy Books; 310 pages

Anthony's life is falling apart.

He escaped Florida and his half-Irish, half-Italian, mostly unaffirming family for a life as a newspaper editor in Chicago—except that his hustler, HIV-positive boyfriend Steven doesn't really seem to appreciate him, if he ever did.

Tarantella begins with a phone call from Anthony's younger sister, Rosalia, letting him know that the hated patriarch has just had a massive heart attack. Anthony flies down to visit, and emotions—regret and anger chief among them—ensue.

Tarantella is a portrait of Anthony trying to finally confront the deep-seated resentments that have sapped his confidence over the years, to patch the flaws that make him weak. The title comes from a Italian dance that becomes a literal parable his Italian grandmother imparts to him at his sister's wedding, when they do the dance together. It gets its name from the frenzied gyrations a dancer makes after being bitten by a tarantula, the movement made to wishfully neutralize the poison in the bloodstream. The months after the fateful phone call chronicle Anthony's embarking upon the tarantella of relationships never fully resolved, though nearly half the book is flashbacks to Anthony's boyhood.

Writer Scot T. O'Hara is at his best with visceral drama—when a rattlesnake's head ( possibly venomous animals form a thematic motif ) fails to get severed and its dark blood streaks a driveway, and when Anthony vomits all over himself on the drive to Florida—and the melancholy of a failed gay connection. All of Anthony's attempts at finding love and connection with another man are beautifully doomed by his reluctance to share fully of himself, his nature which is both tentative and passionate. His college romance with the artsy Cliff ( which ends when Anthony prevaricates about coming out to his family ) and his domestic stalemate with the unfaithful Steven are some of the most emotionally resonant in this quiet unspooling of a man's life.

Characters other than Anthony tend to be a dash too simple. His sister and his grandmother are unabashedly patient explainers of his insufferable family, and the repeated assertions that his father ultimately loved him ring a bit false when confronted with the total history of this man's behavior, even if it is through his middle son's biased eyes. This is a man who made his eldest son run away at the age of 16, didn't seem to care much that he had done so, and made no attempt to contact him in the ensuing decades.

Any reader with an abusive parent will completely understand why Anthony—who watched his older brother disappear at the age of 10, and continued to suffer his father's treatment until he left for college—wouldn't want to make amends. Still, Tarantella will stick with its audience for its strength of portraying the internal struggle, for making Anthony sympathetic yet trying, and for admitting that relationships often go awry in less than spectacular but incredibly hurtful ways, with repair often being incomplete and impossible.

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