Profane Feasts

New American Edition

Fiction - Anthology
219 Pages
Reviewed on 01/19/2024
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Author Biography

Two of his novels, Celluloid Gangs and The Big House, were published by Walker & Company. Four story collections by Tolnay were published by Silk Label Books, Smith Publishers, and Atmosphere Press. The author’s individual works have appeared in more than two dozen literary and consumer magazines, including Saturday Evening Post, Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Downbeat, The Fiddlehead, Chelsea Review, The Iconoclast, Confrontation, Southwest Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Carpe Articulum, etc. His short stories have been anthologized by Dell, Signet, Down East Books, Literal Latte Books.
Tolnay’s story, “The Ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” was first prize winner of Literal Latte’s national short story competition. Subsequently it was produced as a short film by Sea Lions Productions, and was screened at the International Film Festival in Toronto, and at festivals in Hollywood, Savannah, and Woodstock.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Jamie Michele for Readers' Favorite

Profane Feasts by Tom Tolnay traces the life of Alexandros Jr. and his unique Greek-American family in Brooklyn. Written in chapter vignettes, Alexandros' first-person narrative begins with Aunt Harriet's unconventional marital history and the family's integration of ancient heritage into daily life, which are juxtaposed against financial constraints. As Alexandros matures, dynamic shifts and humorous events arise, including Christos's marriage and Ya-Ya's memorable parade splash. Family rituals, spiritual interventions by Father Nick, and uncomfortable revelations, such as cousin Peter's homosexuality, are brought to light. Alexandros describes the challenges of academia and romance amid conservative family views and leans toward family tragedies, myth-building, and Alexandros's reluctant management of the family restaurant. Throughout, Alexandros paints a picture of a life flush with divergent family mechanics, identity, tradition, and generational differences within the Greek-American experience.

It's incredibly difficult not to read Profane Feasts by Tom Tolnay and think, “Could this be a memoir?” It's that good, that real, and that engrossing. Tolnay manages a balancing act in the preservation of family heritage. As a woman of East Asian descent with an Irish father, sometimes Tolnay's stories felt personal to me, just with different food. I laughed out loud when Alexandros muses, "Guess God likes Irish Catholics better than Orthodox Greeks." I love how Tolnay integrates cultural and historical commentary, like discussing Alexandros's family's views on romantic relationships, especially regarding Greeks marrying non-Greeks, to provide a window into the juxtaposition of old-world morality with changing societal norms. The writing is clean, overflows with intelligent wit, and paints scenes that are almost cinematic in detail. There is one scene in particular where the detailed depiction of the parish hall comes into play, with its sturdy yet warped plank floors and damaged ceiling panels, all creating a near-tangible sense of the environment. Tolnay deftly uses visual metaphors, such as the optical illusion of crosses formed by adjoining white rectangles. Overall, this is an excellent work of fictionalized realism that can be enjoyed equally, whether read in bite-sized chapters or swallowed all at once. Very highly recommended.

Marshall Brooks

If comedian Don Rickles was born, as he claimed, with a Fudgicle in his mouth, fellow New Yorker, Alexandros Dropolous, Jr., emerged with a lump of feta in his — the food of Greek shepherds and, arguably, the cyclops Polyphemus — à la Flatbush, Brooklyn (and, later, Queens), in the 1960s. Alexandros is the beset, coming-of-age narrator of Profane Feasts who if not quite himself a hero, his Greek-American family, collectively, certainly qualifies. Self-sacrificing, hard-working (many of them) and outlandish, their often holiday-rooted escapades are memorably — and never not humorously — related by Alex. He is a capable storyteller with the reliable pertinacity of a BMT subway express. Birth, death, marriage (or “holy hammerlock” as Alex would have it), not to mention The Evil Eye, are all subject to his youthful, ever amazed, unblinkered vision in this taut collection (there is nary a wasted word) of fictional “story-chapters.” And we readers are immeasurably the richer for it. So, too, society, lest these tales of passionate endurance by a group people who never acknowledged “the harsh reality” of their poverty (being too rich in other ways to bother) be lost to the ages.
There are more than a few moments in the Profane Feasts when a true seriousness (“borrowed shade”, to deploy an Alex expression) emerges. These are as affecting as they are unexpected. When a grown Alex asks his mother to reveal how her antidote for The Evil Eye worked back when he was a ten-year-old victim of the dreaded stare, she replies, “‘It’s not so good … to talk on it, otherwise it won’t work next time.’” He then continues, “From that I gathered she simply didn’t know the answer. Like so much in her life, she took Greek matters and myths on unfiltered faith, a commodity so rare in these faithless times we sometimes mistake it for stupidity.” In the story “The Devil Loves to Roll the Dice & Play a Hand of Cards”, wherein Alex, facing financial ruin, is bailed at the last minute — big time. Afterwards, he muses “That prayers are answered if not by a host of angels, then at least through the human beings who love us.”

How did a civilization responsible eons years ago for the building of the Parthenon (in 432 B.C., to be exact) come to be eating off of 4x8 plywood sheets laid across purloined police barriers in the mid-20th century? (“These wooden ‘horses’ had been appropriated late one night … from a construction site on Flatbush Avenue.”). Every page of the collection reminds us that Profane Feasts’ raison d'être is to address this all-consuming conundrum. Grandmapou “Ya-Ya Hysterical.” Delphinia. Evangelina. Merrula and Kosmas Tarsipias. Euthalia Damocles. Mrs. Crousious. Mrs. Rhinosos (the witch). Aunt Harriet. Christos (the live-in “almost” uncle). Father Nick. Papou (Alexandros, Sr.). They all do their best to put you straight as to how things really are. How life is and should be. But my own money is on is Alex’s Uncle Stavros for the last word — and gesture. Stavros Hestiakos who “spoke kindly to cats and petted children politely” (he was allergic to the former and never had any of the latter). “But he never learned to hate,” Alex relates, and that counts for plenty.”

— Marshall Brooks, ed/publ, Arts End Books