Throughout The Color Inside a Melon, John Domini’s stylized, artful, and heroic new novel, the author explores the protean nature of identity, race, and sexuality. Set in modern day Naples, Italy, the book is part murder mystery and part picaresque romp. At the center of the story is Risto, a refugee from Mogadishu, who has married well and established himself in Europe. He lives a safe, bourgeois life with his wife Paola and two children. The couple own an art gallery and socialize with a cast of characters that seem plucked from Patti Smith’s Just Kids. But not all refugees have been as lucky as Risto. Leaving horrific conditions in Africa, many clandestinos have found a different set of obstacles in a country not suited to handle this challenge. The plot starts when a character named La Cia is brutally murdered, and Risto decides to take on the role of amateur sleuth, but the tension builds as more bodies emerge.
“What did the police care about a brother cut to ribbons? A clandestino?” Domini addresses Italian racism and homophobia through the brutal death of La Cia who “bled to death in the former back office of a clothing factory.” Risto’s inner circle consists of sexually fluid immigrants who hang out in dance clubs, a scene resembling the Lower East Side’s boho blend of art, partying, and drugs. Since the police “don’t waste time with a child of Sodom,” Risto becomes a detective in search of his friend’s killer. The murder mystery plot forces Risto out into the world of Naples, but once there the reader can’t help but experience a cultural critique that borders on satire.
One character of derision is Della Figurazione, a corrupt cop who “might possibly skim off a percentage” of an illegal sale of counterfeit jewelry and who picks which laws to follow and which to ignore. Figurazione plays the contact between the feckless “officials” paid by the corrupt state and Risto, who registers as a Civilian Informant in a land with a questionable legal system. On the other side of the law, and another object of derision, is “Jabba the Hut,” a homophobic gangster who seems to represent the worst aspects of toxic masculinity. Like Scylla and Charybdis, the refugees in this book have to navigate both groups in order to get by in Italy. While the law seems to have turned its back on the refugees, the mafia takes advantage of the community’s circumstances. One effect Domini achieves using such noir figures is that Risto’s inner circle of friends seem more fully realized in contrast to the one-dimensional portrayals of the noir cop-and-robber figures. This cultural tension also drives the plot, which only fully emerges at the end of the book.
Tuttavia, a refugee from Lithuania, explains to Risto that “‘We’re two outsiders,’ she goes on, ‘two refugees, on the run from oppression.’” She is described as possibly “the most talented woman [Risto] knew, also possibly the whitest.” Her backstory includes escaping the Iron Curtain, succeeding in an art conservatory, and engaging in BDSM with an aged professor. In an interesting stylistic turn, Domini shifts to a whimsical fairytale tone with Tuttavia with lines like “Once there was a pretty young artist.” Domini’s different use of narrative modes shapes the reader’s response to characters. Just as the noir features emerged around cops and gangsters, the use of fairytales seems to romanticize the white female’s sexual romp in contrast to Risto’s hustling in order to live on his feet in the scorched earth.
The tension created by the murder mystery plot returns to the question of “who [do] you stand with?” Risto’s loyalty is to both his fellow clandestinos from Africa and his Italian wife; to Mogadishu, Somalia and Naples, Italy. Domini’s use of genre—be it the murder mystery plot, the film noir characters, or the inclusion of fairytale tropes—point to how an individual’s perception shapes and colors one’s relationship with culture. This book isn’t an academic exercise; rather Domini employs an artistic blend of psychology and sociology to dramatize the story of these migrants who have overcome significant obstacles to establish a new life in Naples. The Color Inside a Melon celebrates the common man who will risk his comfort for his friends. “Common man” isn’t the right word for Risto; maybe the more accurate word is “heroic.” There is something heroic in the story of Risto, in the stories of all refugees perhaps, those individuals who have overcome huge personal challenges, yet are willing to lose their comfortable new life in order to save friends and family.