November 15: “Hit Man of the Year” by Hannah Tinti

Greetings, Story366! Today wasn’t my favorite. I mean, a week ago wasn’t my favoritest of all, but today was just a crappy day. If you follow me on Facebook, you know the story of the windshield replacement, how I went to get my windshield replaced today and ran into some pretty abject and casual racism. While my car was ripped open, no windshield in it, the head windshield place guy started chatting with me about how we both came from the south suburbs of Chicago, how much he liked it better here in Springfield because of how much less crime there was, how it had to do with living in an all-white area, wondering if I felt the same. My car not ready, exactly, leaving no chance for me to storm away, especially with my three year old in tow; I couldn’t exactly put up the protest that I wanted to. Nor did I say anything except “That’s terrible.” So, opportunity to stand up to hatred and ugliness and I whiffed, which bums me out almost as much as the incident itself. Later, I somehow missed the bus for said three year old to go to his afternoon school, finding that out after waiting for a half an hour on my stoop (I was crazy-busy today), meaning I had to drive him across town (and he was late). When I went inside for my car keys, I was greeted with the sight of one of my bookshelves toppled over, smashing a plant (Cub ivy), knocking over a cherished lamp (which survived), and making a big mess of everything (particularly my Story366 books from about August 1 until now—yes, I keep them on a shelf, in order …). That was all by noon.

The day evened out. I made homemade pizza for dinner, which made me happy. My family liked it, which is great, too. And now I’m salvaging the day with a good night’s work. That, thankfully, included reading from Hannah Tinti‘s collection Animal Crackers, out from Delta Fiction (though originally from Dial Press in cloth form). Tinti is perhaps best known for her work as the creator of One Story and all the associated things like their workshops and debutante ball (which I got to go to once), as well as spearheading the creation of Submissions Manager, which changed the way that I and just about every other editor operates on a daily basis. I don’t like to exaggerate here, but Tinti’s had an astounding effect on contemporary literature, and she’s, like, way younger than me.

Of course, there’s her writing, which is also great. I got to read a few stories from Animal Crackers today, for some reason trying to find the ones about animals—there’s one about a rabbit that kind of bummed me out, after losing Peter this year—so ironically I’m going to write about “Hit Man of the Year” today, which might mention an animal here or there, but is about people (or man-animals, as L. Ron Hubbard might put it).

In any case, “Hit Man of the Year” is about a hit man, yes, but we first get his detailed and touching origin story. Said hit man, Ambruzzo Spagnetti, was born in his grandmother’s bakery, his mother (kind of chubby all her life) not mentioning her pregnancy to anyone until her water broke back in the kitchen. Ambruzzo’s grandmother, Nonna, delivers her grandson right there where she rolls out her dough, saving her grandson, who is described in the first line of the story as coming out “fists-first,” but cannot save her daughter. Nonna buries her daughter and raises Ambruzzo in the bakery, putting him to work delivering bread and doing other odd chores. What an origin!

Nonna, well before Ambruzzo or his mother, spent a lot of her life dealing with Martin Spordonza, a local street tough who robbed her once when he was kid, an act that was followed up with Nonna hunting him down and slapping the shit out of him. Martin grew up to be a rising star in the local mafia, but always had respect for Nonna, whom he respected for her toughness. Nonna cannot stop Spordonza’s interest in Ambruzzo, however, especially after this incident: One day, Nonna entrusted young Ambruzzo in escorting a local woman to the bus station. After loading the woman onto the bus, Ambruzzo notices a man skulking around, a man who flips Ambruzzo a coin to pretend he hasn’t seen him. As it turns out, the man is an assassin, sent to kill someone on the bus; the assassin punctures the bus’s tires with a knife, hoping for a blowout on the road, and Ambruzzo, making a key life choice, pushes the assassin under the bus’s wheels as it embarks on its journey, crushing him. To Ambruzzo, it’s not so much good deed, but the start of a lust for killing, something he immediately proves he has the knack for.

From there, Ambruzzo begins the life of a hit man, recruited by MSpordanza’s family, at first to do odd muscle jobs, eventually to kill his enemies. Nonna has lost control at this point, and soon, Ambruzzo is sent off to Italy to hone his skills, to become a master. All through high school, however—Nonna insisted he at least finish that and Spordanza couldn’t fight her—and into his adult life as a killer, Ambruzzo is smitten with a girl, Amy Stackenfrach, who acknowledges him, but simply can’t love him because of who he is and what he does, she’s a lot like Kay in The Godfather movies. Amy is more successful in fending off her mobster than Kay, however, and eventually marries another man. When Ambruzzo returns from his training in Italy, he confronts Amy (as Michael does with Kay in The Godfather), but Amy turns him down again. The best scenes in the story are when Ambruzzo plants himself outside Amy’s window, pointing his sniper’s rifle at Amy’s husband, trying to will himself to pull the trigger, knowing it will only make things with Amy less possible (considerably so), but thirsting to do so, anyway.

That sums up all the variables in “Hit Man of the Year,” so I won’t reveal any more details of the plot. I like this story because it’s a pretty tense and exciting piece for a literary short story, but mostly for the voice, for the perspective. It’s told in a distant third person, following Ambruzzo, mostly, but feeling more omniscient throughout, especially in the opening, which is clearly (and logically) from Nonna’s point of view as she brings Ambruzzo into the world. This perspective allows us to maintain our distance from this horrible person, whom we kind of like, as after all, we saw the circumstances of his birth, see him treat his Nonna and the lady on the bus with respect, see him be truly in love with Amy Stackenfrach. Tinti allows us to remain neutral, however, to retain objectivity, which, for a hit man story, seems fitting.

Hannah Tinti has done a lot for stories and story-writing, so I’m glad to finally feature her and Animal Crackers here. She’s published one novel, The Good Thief, and has another, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, due early next year. Not sure where she finds the time to write novels on top of everything else she does, but I admire her drive and her talent.

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