Vince Sgambati’s career as a writer took a step forward in April when Standing Stone Books, a local press, published his novel, “Sanctuaries.” It’s received several positive reviews and is now in its second printing. This is an auspicious time for Sgambati, who’s lived in Syracuse for over 35 years and currently splits time between the Salt City and New York City.
The novel’s protagonist, Gianni Pagnucci, struggles to find his way in the world during the 1960s and 1970s. As a third grader, he learns that he’s an adoptee during a painful conversation with two cousins. As a young man, he explores his sexual identity and is uncertain about life in general.
After dropping out of college after a semester, he returns to his hometown, New York City, and to working in the family bakery. Eventually, he finds a second job in Orchard, a revival movie theater, delves into queer culture on Christopher Street, forms deep friendships with two older characters, Raffaella and Gabriel.
She’s a middle-aged Holocaust survivor who took part in anti-fascist activities in Italy, was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He’s an African American drag queen who feeds and supports homeless gay youth, most of whom are completely alienated from their parents.
The novel introduces a retinue of characters while focusing on Gianni’s quest for an authentic life. Most of all, it examines his search for personal healing.
For Sgambati, creating complicated characters isn’t a new process. He previously wrote “Most Precious Blood,” a novel published in 2018, and “Undertow of Memory,” a collection of 11 stories released in 2020.
And yet, he’s not someone who pursued writing as a lifelong career. For 25 years, he was a teacher in the Syracuse City School District, instructing children and adolescents, doing in-service training for staff. And he taught Syracuse University students preparing to become teachers.
In addition, he became a parent at age 46 and had a long track record of community activism, particularly on LGBTQ issues.
However, he did write on a very part-time basis, doing commentaries and columns on queer parenting for “Lavender Magazine.”
But in 2005, at age 55, he retired from teaching and started writing on an extensive basis. Ultimately, he created a manuscript, the precursor to “Most Precious Blood.” Queries to publishers didn’t go well, and he also thought the work needed revision.
For a few years, he concentrated on short-form writing. Starting in 2010, he published short stores and non-fiction pieces in literary magazines such as “North American Review” and “Via: Italiana Americana.”
That helped build his position as a writer. “It established a resume,” Sgambati said. “It was much easier for me to approach publishers. I also went online and did a lot of research on possibilities for publishing. I had to ask–what is my niche?”
Guernica World Editions was a good fit for “Most Precious Blood.” That novel, set in Glenhaven, Queens, during 2006-2007, looks at an Italian-American neighborhood in deep decline, with many people moving to the suburbs and others determined to stay where they grew up.
In the midst of the turmoil, Lenny Lascante runs a Italian-American grocery store and is a single parent for his son, Frankie. He wants Frankie to leave the neighborhood at all costs. The son, meanwhile, is indifferent to the prospect of college and infatuated with Gennaro, a local teenager and son of a small-time mobster.
“Most Precious Blood” received favorable response such as a starred review by Kirkus Reviews. It also was a Foreword Indies finalist in literary fiction and a finalist for the Central New York Book Awards competition.
And now, “Sanctuaries” is in print. It’s an ambitious novel whose characters react to or mention real-life events: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the Stonewall Rebellion, and others.
In addition, it provides rich descriptions of the bakery run by Gianni’s family, of the coffee and pastries served in Sanctuary, a shop in the Orchard Theater, of the films shown there.
Sgambati notes that his books reflect multiple influences in his life: listening to stories as a child, growing up in an Italian-American family that ran a grocery store, dealing with being a closeted gay young man in the 1960s.
Beyond that, he’s thought a good deal about how people connect or don’t connect. The notion of shared community is an essential element of “Sanctuaries,” and so is the virtue of compassion. The novel certainly doesn’t assert that everything turns out well in life. Rather, it suggests that healing can happen, even in unexpected circumstances.
“Sanctuaries” can be purchased during the CNY PRIDE Festival which is being held at the Inner Harbor on June 10 between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Sgambati will be on hand to autograph the book.
Carl Mellor wrote about visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 to 2019. He continues to write about artists and exhibitions in the Syracuse area and about other cultural topics.