Johnny Boy

Fiction - Literary
315 Pages
Reviewed on 07/29/2021
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Author Biography

Writer, actor, visual artist and musician, John Califano has performed in clubs, art galleries, feature films, and Off-Broadway productions.

His writing is featured in The Broadkill Review the Willesden Herald’s New Short Stories Series (UK), Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, Poetry Super Highway, Across the Margin, and Embark, an international literary journal for novelists.

John grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and lives in Manhattan where he contemplates his existence and works helping at-risk parolees transition back into the workforce.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Lesley Jones for Readers' Favorite

Johnny Boy is written by John Califano. Born into a tumultuous working-class family in Brooklyn New York, Johnny Caruso tries to make sense of the abusive relationship between his parents, while struggling to find a voice of his own. His bitter, alcoholic father, Bellisario, believes violence and intimidation is the only way to reign over his family. As Johnny grows up, he adopts his siblings as his role models. Older brother Frank has little respect for his father and shows it. He believes, unlike his father, that with hard work and no excuses, you can achieve anything in life. When Frank joins the army, Johnny feels he has been abandoned, and his life is further thrown into turmoil when his mother takes to her bed. As Johnny's mother's health deteriorates, Connie is left to take her place. The violence and beatings become more common and soon Connie finds an escape through marriage. Now Johnny turns on any kind of authority and, with his gang of friends, seek to cause disruption at school and in their community. It is only when a kindly adult throws a lifeline of a better future to him that Johnny believes maybe happiness could be possible.

From the first few pages of this fantastic book, I felt I understood the main character's personality and the dynamics of this family. Every character has been created with the utmost care. The dialogue especially was strong and explained everything about their personalities and view of the world. The narrative was extremely visual. I was swept into the 1950s and '60s Italian/American New York. This is an exceptional story of the complexities of family relationships and the battle for authority. The determination to succeed and the frustrations that come when things don't go your way. This novel truly evoked strong emotions as I read it, the scenes between Frank and his father were particularly disturbing. I loved Frank's character, he was focused, strong-minded and ambitious. I thought the friendship between Johnny and Jackie was truly superb, I loved the dynamics between them. My favorite character had to be Sally Boy, he did make me laugh. I was sad to finish this book as I wanted to know about Johnny's next chapter of his life. I hope the author writes a sequel. An exceptional story from a very talented author.

Rabia Tanveer

Johnny Boy by John Califano is the coming-of-age story of a young boy who learns to live in a way that makes him stronger, better and far more intelligent than he ever thought possible. In a story set in the ’50s and ’60s, Johnny belongs to a family that doesn’t really have any unity. Johnny Caruso was too sensitive for a working-class family in Brooklyn. He doesn’t really have the best life, his father and mother are too conservative and don’t really pay attention to him. His older brother Frank and his sister Connie are people he looks up to, but that is not enough to help him to feel centered. So he takes out his aggression by shoplifting and being an overall bad student. However, that changes when the consequences of his actions catch up to him. He realizes that what he is doing to his life is not going to change anything about his life. The only one with the power to change his life is him and only he can help himself.

This was an interesting novel, one that teaches a book full of lessons. I don’t know if the author meant the novel to be this way, but I learned so much about myself through this story. Johnny is the quintessential universal protagonist; he is the child that we all were; a little insecure, a little desperate and hungry for attention. He was lucky enough to have his brother and sister in his life to make it a little easier for him to grow up with a better mind and a healthy body. The flow is perfect for the story, the pace is not too fast or too slow, which makes it perfect for Johnny’s development. I was amazed by how the author was able to convey the thoughts we often have but never find the right words to say them out loud. It was so fulfilling and almost magical to read. Very entertaining!

Ruffina Oserio

Johnny Boy by John Califano is a mesmerizing story with a well-captured setting in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, a multi-ethnic community of working-class people. It is here that Johnny grows up, right in the heart of Brooklyn on the top floor of a two-family house not far from Coney Island. The story begins with a childhood incident that introduces the conflict. It happens when Frank, Johnny’s elder brother, tries to light a match in front of a chunky old stove to bring some warmth to the kitchen. This sets off a fireball that catches the attention of the neighbors who are scared to death, imagining it’s a bomb. The narrator takes readers through the difficult dynamics of the Caruso family, the tense relationship between Bellisario, the alcoholic and abusive father, and Frank, older brother to Johnny and Connie. Three-year-old Johnny looks up to Frank as a surrogate father. The reader gets a very clear idea of a difficult family, and the dynamics will affect Johnny’s emotional health, making him grow up with low self-esteem. Follow the young protagonist as he quickly learns to cheat and to shoplift with his friends. It is interesting to follow him and to discover how new relationships can help give hope to a young boy who is uncertain, self-doubting, and hesitant.

I loved this book, and I enjoyed the way the author explores the values of the time, weaving vivid imagery into the setting and allowing the way of life of the people to come out beautifully in the story. The contrast between Bellisario Caruso and his son Frank is portrayed well and this contrast is at the root of the conflict that gradually eats into the life of the young protagonist. While Frank is young, open-minded, and daring, his father is stiff and a control freak who is abusive. From the very beginning, this tension already has a toll on young Johnny Caruso. The incident after Frank’s attempt to light a match in front of the old stove sets the pace for the conflict that moves this story ahead. The narrative is in the first-person, a compelling voice that absorbs the reader from the beginning and forces them to follow the point of view of the protagonist. Johnny Boy is a coming-of-age novel filled with humor that explores values within a very complex environment; how a young boy navigates the complexities of this world to find his own identity and voice. It is as entertaining as it is inspiring.

Romuald Dzemo

Johnny Boy by John Califano is a quick read, an interesting coming-of-age novel that explores themes of personal development, family, and interpersonal relationships in a complex family environment. The first-person narrative focuses on Johnny Caruso as he evolves with difficult family dynamics in the 1950s to '60s. The family lives in Bensonhurst, in a working-class area of the city. The narrator starts with childhood experiences that depict the unease and the uncertainty that characterize the life of young Johnny as family drama pits the alcoholic and abusive father, Bellisario, against his older brother and sister, Frank and Connie. The story follows the young boy as he learns to survive in school by cheating and joining kids his age to shoplift. But as he grows older, he also encounters characters that help define who he really is and he finds a purpose.

Here is a story that explores the power of choices and the place of positive influence in human and personal development. This interesting story explores how family background affects the growth process and how characters see themselves. The beginning reminded me of the gripping style of the classic autobiography of Richard Wright, Black Boy. The author creates vivid childhood scenes that are gripping, like when Frank tries to light an old stove to warm the house and creates a huge ball of fire that leaves neighbors thinking it's a bomb, making the three-year-old protagonist wet his pants in fear as he witnesses the hot exchange between his father and brother and the worried neighbor. I loved the depth of character and followed the development of the protagonist with keen interest. The reader wants to know if Johnny can grow out of his incredulity and low self-esteem into a confident person who can take control of his life. The prose is beautiful and highly descriptive and the narrative remains real and gripping. It is a story with powerful lessons, well told, and with scenes that will resonate with many readers.

Jamie Michele

Johnny Boy by John Califano is a literary fiction novel that follows the life of the titular character, Johnny Caruso, as he comes of age and transitions from childhood to his high school years. Written in the first person, Johnny is the narrator and it is through his voice that we get an immediate sense of a turbulent childhood. His primary source of stability comes not from his parents, Bellisario and Marie, but from his older siblings, Frank and Connie. The environment does little to foster positive growth and maturity from Johnny as he moves precariously through life, torn between his father and brother—who both love him in their own, very different ways—and no real “out” for him that he can see, nor one his father sees for him (“What can I do?” he muttered despairingly as he walked away. “I guess somebody’s gotta be the shoemaker.”). The struggles and troubles are real for Johnny, but when a graduate student enters the picture, Johnny is hopeful about the flicker of light he sees at the end of the tunnel.

Johnny Boy by John Califano is an engrossing, tightly written fictional account that reads like a fantastic (albeit heartbreaking at times) memoir. The characters are exceptionally well developed and we're given an immediate sense of who they are even through the eyes of a three-year-old. Califano writes with a realism that is not so easy to find these days, and the dynamic of the family comes to life through dialogue that you can actually hear being played out in front of you. For all the damage they cause each other and their own children, Bellisario and Marie feel the most like flesh and blood, and it's hard not to feel sorry for them also—victims themselves of their time and circumstances. I genuinely loved this book and think it's an excellent read for anyone in the mood for a taste of mid-century Brooklyn through the window of an Italian family.