Fiction writers try to take universal experience and shape it into specific actions and feelings from authentic characters. In his latest novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, author Philip Cioffari accomplishes this task in spades.
On the surface, If Anyone Asks is the story of one night in the life of Joey “Hunt” Hunter. It’s a big night for him—both his 18th birthday and prom night at his high school. Self-conscious and unsure, he worries about impressing his prom date, the love of his life, Debby Ann. What he doesn’t realize—or maybe he does—is that he can’t impress her because her heart belongs to Sal, head of a local gang called the Brandos.
After the fiasco of the prom and rejection from Debby Ann, Hunt embarks on an exploration of bars and eateries in the Bronx, hoping to still wring some magic out of the night. Accompanying him is his friend, Johnnie Jay, a boy who, unlike Hunt, can lose himself in the moment and occasionally experience contentment. Also with them are Hunt’s memories of his little brother, Toby, who was killed in an accident for which Hunt blames himself.
As Hunt moves through the night, the universality of his experiences builds. With Debby Ann, he longs for something that is real but that he can’t have. At the prom and at several of the bars he sees a flutter of light that surrounds a girl in a blue dress who disappears into the crowd before he can get close to her. Now he’s plagued with a longing for what may not be real or defined, but he still can’t have it. Through everything he feels like something is missing, something is right beyond his reach.
In contrast to Hunt is another friend, Augie, a street-wise 10-year-old who seems to have already seen it all in his short life and accepts everything for what it is. He never seems to be waiting for something or expecting anything.
In addition to longing, Hunt is faced with fear, again both certain and vague. Friends tell him that Sal, who’s also known as the Butcher, is out to get him because of his attention to Debby Ann. Since he’s seen Sal and the Brandos out on the streets since the prom, he knows he’s likely doomed. But there’s a larger threat sweeping through the streets that night. Rumors are circulating that the Golden Guineas, the most feared gang in the Bronx, are coming to start a gang war. No one knows exactly if they will come or when, just probably sometime before dawn.
More than once during this long night, Hunt is reminded of Toby. Between bar visits, he presses Johnnie Jay to go with him to Toby’s grave. Staring at Toby’s tombstone, Hunt again says the accident was his fault, but Johnnie Jay contradicts him. “Do you ever think that maybe this was pre-ordained?” he asks, raising universal questions of destiny and free will. “Maybe it’s part of the plan. Each of us is given our own special pain to carry.”
Eventually Hunt is faced with challenges that demand courage he isn’t sure he has. In a classic coming-of-age experience, he has to look within himself to find out. And by his side is the ever-unflappable Augie.
If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues is not a long novel, yet it feels rich and full. Its pages are packed with action, yearning, fear, and as the title says, heartbreak, all squeezed into one teenager’s efforts to get through one night in his life. There are also insights, questions, and discoveries, and the spark that makes it all worthwhile—hope.