Sunday, September 05, 2010

Michael Milani: It Happens Every Morning

I'VE BEEN READING three books simultaneously: James Joyce's Ulysses, Victor Navasky's A Matter of Opinion, and Michael Milani's It Happens Every Morning. A modernist classic of fiction; a liberal journalist's memoir; a self-published account of the history and actors in the wholesale produce business in San Francisco.

Damned if there isn't a common theme: the bonhomie — is there an English term for it? — of convivial men (alas not too many women here) united in an overwhelming subculture. And each author's book finds in the theme a common narrative quality, however differently expressed: overridingly entertaining, comic exuberance out of a context of (and here the books diverge a bit) privation, or disillusion, or hard work.

As you might suspect, Milani's is the quickest read: 28 chapters and an epilogue in 325 pages of loose prose, not much edited, more enthusiastic than literary. Some of the pages may find your attention flagging; the accounts of the many produce-brokerage companies occasionally recall the Book of Numbers in their compulsion to include every begat, consequential or not. But there are so many practical jokes, drinking stories, funny asides, and improbable nicknames you don't dare skim over such passages.

More seriously, Milani describes the changing character of the business, from the late 19th century when produce was brought by horse-drawn wagons from San Mateo county to the city (only the lead wagoneer awake, the others dozing behind him, trusting their horses to follow the familiar route) to the days of shrinkwrap and standardization. He records the in-fighting resulting from city redevelopment's forced relocation of the business, meticulously examining motives and methods. And implicit in the book is the Italian-American theme of family, extended family, and business, with occasional appearances of goons and thugs.

Milani was born in 1937. In his teens he worked summers in his father's wholesale business, and it's easy to see why the camaraderie, coupled with a strong sense of family, led him into the business in his turn — after college, where he studied modern American literature, of all things. (I wonder if he read Pietro di Donato, or Frank Norris. Probably.) It Happens Every Morning — the title is no doubt intentionally a little risqué — certainly doesn't look like a Stanford literature student's writing: it's about as proletarian as you can get. But its portrayals of a century of change in a vital but largely invisible industry, and of the very human, smart, funny, fiercely competitive yet often surprisingly sentimental men who compose that industry, are truly memorable, in my opinion.

Of course I have a fondness for this sort of thing. This book will go next to The First Forty Years, Dieter Tede's account of his own San Francisco-based Marine Chartering Company, and The Flying Cloud and Her First Passengers, an account of the first voyage of the clipper ship The Flying Cloud around Cape Horn, written by Margaret Lyon and Flora Reynolds. Very small editions, completely uncommercial, these books preserve both small but significant slices of history while celebrating the humanity and intelligence of amateur writing in the best sense.
  • It Happens Every Morning and The First Forty Years can be found, in short supply, at; The Flying Cloud remains in print and is available from Center for the Book at Mills College.
  • 1 comment:

    Curtis Faville said...


    Are you a frustrated food merchant? To hear you describe the details of meal after meal, specifying the seasonings, the method of preparation, the occasional significance of each repast, is astonishing.

    I suppose it's no accident that you married a professional chef. Or was that an accident of fate?

    Word verification metope (!!!)