Cookie Colangelo, who first appeared in the novel “YONKERS, Yonkers!” as a 12-year-old, self-styled gangster/hippie chick, now returns in a sequel, “The Heart of Yonkers.”
Cookie still resides in Yonkers, New York. Once known as “The City of Gracious Living,” Yonkers’ relics of past grandeur have succumbed to urban decay by the early 1970s, the time of this story.
About to turn 15, Cookie frets about the fugue-like fog she finds herself in. She has “lost her words” and is unable to write about her feelings the way she always used to do to help her make sense of things.
Instead, she is consumed with disconcerting new urges: “What do you do when your body is flooded with red hot flames pricking your skin inside out and you can’t find a way to vent the heat?”
Cookie becomes obsessed with the idea of kissing. She has standards, however, and is not about to settle for a Yonkers guy: “She wanted to be with a boy, but she sure as hell didn’t want to be with one of them. Lifers, loafers and losers.”
Instead, she fixes her sights on the enigmatic Stanley de Falco, a young Vietnam vet who has been back from the war long enough to wear his hair in a long blond ponytail.
At the same time she embarks upon her improbable quest to attract Stanley, Cookie discovers that her dad is unfaithful while her mentally ill mom is away for one of her periodic stays in “the nuthouse.”
So this is the emotional terrain Cookie navigates over the year before she turns “Sweet Sixteen.”
She also continues to roam the physical landscape of Yonkers’ seven hills — on foot, by bus and now (at peril to herself and others) from behind the wheel of her dad’s Buick.
Author Patricia Vaccarino, who currently divides her time between Manzanita and Seattle, writes with cartographic precision about this place that was her hometown. The (now-demolished) landmark Carnegie library still presides gracefully over the city in this story, while a host of stores, streets, parks and schools make up the neighborhoods that Vaccarino recreates with fond, but also wry, specificity.
This novel is loaded with sensory detail. There’s the stink of the polluted Hudson River. There are the tantalizing aromas wafting from the local Italian restaurant.
And there’s an insistent soundtrack of ambient sound mixed up with 1970s jukebox tunes: kids curse and laugh in the back of the bus, a roller coaster clacks and groans, an April thunderstorm lashes against the Colangelo household as a domestic drama unspools inside, and all the while the jukebox at the Midget Bar blasts out Cream’s “White Room,” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
Ultimately, that is Cookie’s goal. To get out of Yonkers for good. But will her lust-fueled impulses tether her forever to this place?
“The Heart of Yonkers” is soul-searching and heart-wrenching.