The Gallery - John Horne Burns
John Horne Burns' The Gallery isn't always pretty, but neither is life. It takes us on a journey into the hearts and minds of an unlikely mix of American servicemen and vanquished Neapolitans after the Allied invasion of Southern Italy. In a series of nine portraits, we meet a few honorable Americans, some desperate Italians and a mountain of moral ambiguity. American greed complements Italian ingenuity in this caldron of destruction and despair which is Occupied Naples in the summer of 1944. Not surprising, corrupt officers, effete clergy and hypocritical support staff are eviscerated, but a few of the Americans, the ones who can look beyond their prejudices and prerogatives, experience the rewards of perceiving life from a unique perspective. 

Each portrait reads like a short story and they are connected by a series of promenades, Burns' term for short, evocative descriptions of time and place. He is scathing in his depiction of widespread American callousness toward the starving Italians, but equally dismayed by the opportunistic perfidy of those Italians who benefitted from the corruption and incompetence of the occupiers; Naples, at the foot of Mt Vesuvius, is a powerful metaphor for the complexities of what Burns calls the worst war in history. He uses slang and dialect to humorously define his characters and the prose is as hard-boiled as anything written by Raymond Chandler. There are moments off unforgettable sweetness, like two scoops of gelato on a summer day, and of heartbreak as bitter as a swig of grappa, but in the end this is about human beings struggling to survive a series of catastrophic events beyond their control.