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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Holy Smoke

Tonino Benacquista

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Holy Smoke

Title: Holy Smoke
Author: Tonino Benacquista
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 200 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Holy Smoke - US
Holy Smoke - UK
Holy Smoke - Canada
La commedia des ratés - Canada
Holy Smoke - India
La commedia des ratés - France
Itakerblues - Deutschland
La comedia de los fracasados - España
  • French title: La commedia des ratés
  • Translated by Adriana Hunter

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Our Assessment:

B : some good ideas, and likeable enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 28/12/2003 Susanna Yager
The Guardian . 7/2/2004 Maxim Jakubowski
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/8/2005 Marilyn Stasio
TLS . 28/5/2004 Ruth Morse
The Washington Post . 8/5/2005 Maureen Corrigan

  Review Consensus:

  Enjoyed it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Dodging the Mafia, the locals, and other unknown forces, with even the Vatican taking an interest in the outcome, produces an enjoyable story with touches of dark humour and more serious reflections on Italy's wartime history." - Susanna Yager, Daily Telegraph

  • "An iconoclastic chronicle of small-time crooks and desperate capers, with added Gallic and Italian flair. Wonderful fun." - Maxim Jakubowski, The Guardian

  • "(T)he story is both a blasphemously funny satire of provincial Italian chicanery and a wry acknowledgment of the ambivalence that ambitious immigrants feel about their roots." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is picaresque comedy, which, if one is prepared to tolerate a high level of coincidence, is full of the pleasures of a well-plotted romance. It is also exceptional in being very funny" - Ruth Morse, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The phrase "black comedy" was invented for just this kind of book. Tonio's worldview is so cheerfully off-kilter that, even when the story line gets muddled, his voice lures the reader along. (There's an ambitious if not quite successful attempt here to interweave Tonio's tale with a narrative of his father's World War II escapades in the Italian Army.)" - Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Antonio Polsinelli is the son if Italian immigrants in France, a boy more of Vitry-sur-Seine than Sora, where the family came from. Living in Paris, he is waylaid by an old childhood friend, Dario, on one of his visits to his parents, and Dario, who has never really amounted to much, gets him to help in writing a letter. Dario winds up murdered a short time later -- and leaves Polsinelli a plot of land back in the old country. A vineyard, actually, that he's added to by buying up additional plots of land from two neighbours on the cheap.
       Polsinelli knows the wine by reputation -- it's practically undrinkable -- but he's curious as to what Dario was up to (and what he has gotten himself into). When someone takes a shot at him soon later, he decides he has to go check it out for himself.
       Polsinelli realises:

Dario would never have got himself involved in such a dead-end project. There's something dodgy about this plot of land and it's not just the grapes.
       Sora isn't the most welcoming or cosy place on earth, but Polsinelli finds a room with the pleasant (if TV-obsessed) Bianca, and soon enough has enough on his hands with his new property. The wine really is plonk, there's a blind beggar who has made himself comfortable there, and people are immediately pressuring him to sell. One friendly man (with a razor) insists:
Of your own free will or under duress you will eventually hand over this vineyard. But there isn't much time. I need it quickly. You'll only die sooner if you don't sell it to me.
       Polsinelli discovers why there's some sense of urgency: Dario did, indeed, have a plan -- and a fine plan it is, so Polsinelli decides to do what Dario couldn't. All of a sudden here, Benacquista and his narrator turn coy, as Polsinelli travels to Rome to do some research and prepare, not revealing to the readers what the plan is (an obnoxious fictional device that's at odds with the rest of the book where immediacy is everything). Still, the plot unfolds, the plan goes into action -- and it all works out for the best (or so it seems). It's a very clever idea, and good (if irreverent) fun -- and all of a sudden Polsinelli is sitting on a goldmine, the third-rate wine in great demand.
       Unfortunately, the transformation of the vineyard attracts seriously unwanted attention: one of the previous owners, now living in New Jersey (who turns out to have family-affiliations of a different sort ...) wants in on the deal, as does, soon enough, the Vatican. Each threatens Polsinelli with exposure or worse -- and then there are the suddenly even less friendly townsfolk. Seems that if Polsinelli dies the municipality gets the land (and the cash-cow), which quite a few seem eager to see happen. Throw in some dark events from World War II and other dark history (personal and otherwise) and it's a quite the action-over-packed thriller.
       Holy Smoke is likeable enough, and Polsinelli an agreeable narrator, never quite sure what he's in for (except for that disagreeable section where he keeps the readers in the dark), but Benacquista doesn't get either the tone or pacing down right. The narrative somersaults rather than flows, and the focus isn't always on the matters of greatest interest. The central idea -- what happens at the vineyard that makes it so desirable -- is inspired and nicely pulled off, but it takes Benacquista quite a while to get to it, and there are a few too many distractions surrounding it, packed into very little space.
       In the end, Holy Smoke is an agreeable little thriller, but doesn't quite live up to the potential of the story.

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Holy Smoke: Reviews: Other books by Tonino Benacquista under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French mystery author Tonino Benacquista was born in 1961.

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