Into the Light


Lexington memoirist and storyteller Anthony Martignetti publishes a collection of stories, many with Lexington roots, that resonate with humor, tenderness and ferocious honesty.


By Ana Hebra Flaster


Almost every day, Anthony Martignetti and his Border terrier, Piper, amble through Lexington Center at an almost European pace. There is no suburban power walking for these two. The leash dangles softly between them in quiet understanding. Martignetti’s cane lends a bit of support on the icy, gravel-strewn sidewalks of midwinter. The hint of another place and time that hovers over the old friends may originate in Martignetti’s Italian American roots. Or perhaps it stems from this longtime Lexington resident and psychotherapist’s Buddhist beliefs. Whatever its source, Martignetti has captured that air of another time and place with poignancy, energy and humor in his first book, Lunatic Heroes, a collection of short stories about his early life in Boston’s North End, West Medford Square and Lexington.

Boston-based indie publishing house 3 Swallys Press released the book in November, with a launch event at Lexington’s Cary Memorial Hall that drew more than 500 people. Part of the night’s success was due to the support for the book by musician Amanda Palmer and her husband, award-winning writer Neil Gaiman. While both artists performed at the event, Martignetti held the audience’s attention with powerful readings, particularly of the riveting Swamp, a piece about a pond full of myths and secrets near the author’s Lexington childhood home.

Martignetti was more than comfortable with the large audience. His background in theater and years of performing his stories to local audiences showed. As noted by the Worcester Telegram’s reviewer at the event, “[Martignetti] is an extremely captivating reader, with a Garrison Keillor-esque manner and charm…able to maintain energy and presence for the length of a story…a rare gift in a prose writer.” The audience responded to Martignetti’s energetic performance throughout the night, sitting rapt for long periods, exploding in laughter at others.

Palmer, who has described Martignetti as a combination of “mentor, guru…best friend,” recently suspended her European tour to be with the author as he receives treatment for an aggressive and rare form of leukemia.

Martignetti talked about Palmer’s gesture when we met recently in his loft, a book-lined space above the office where he meets his patients. The walls, shelves, and ceiling of the tree-house-like room hold clues of Martignetti’s passions. Books about the teachings of Christ rest next to Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which leans against several copies of Tao Te Ching, which are bookended by a stack of leather journals the author has kept over the last fifteen years. A vintage Conga drum stands next to his writing desk. Hexagonal shurikens and other ninja weapons received as gifts during his martial arts days cling to the tongue and groove paneled ceiling. A “Martignetti” store sign from the early 1950s shines down in a neon swirl over the shelves. Across the room, draped over a peg, scarred leather boxing gloves remind Martignetti of his days as a club fighter. “I stunk,” he says, “but I fought a lot—for years.” On a side table, a pad of his watercolors is open to a half finished project. Nearby, a framed photo of the author with Palmer.

“I told her she didn’t have to do that,” he says, referring to the musician changing her touring schedule to be with him. “And when I told her that, she said—That’s exactly why I’m doing it.” Though Martignetti shrugs off the health challenges he’s facing, he admits that support from close friends, and especially his wife, attorney Laura Sanford, has been crucial in allowing him to counsel patients, promote Lunatic Heroes, and begin editing his next story collection.

Support from Palmer and Gaiman may have helped draw attention to Lunatic Heroes, but Martignetti’s writing is why the book has been so well received, and recently won the interest of a leading talent agency in New York City. These are linked, vibrant tales about a sensitive child growing up in a poorly functioning family, and the problems he faces as he tries to make sense of the beauty and cruelty surrounding him. Although a memoir, the book reads like a novel, with artfully drawn characters, rich dialogue and fast pacing. Much of the focus is on the author’s youth in Lexington, his confrontations with his force-of-nature father, creative but volatile mother, and a full cast of funny and horrible characters stretching from the streets of the North End to the Maritime Provinces. The writing is fluid and natural, more like listening in on a fascinating story than reading words on a page. Martignetti’s observations about human nature sparkle throughout the book, making the old friends, torturers and rivals he conjures up as real as those in our own lives. Despite the dark turns in many of the pieces, humor lifts the mood on most pages, as does the tenderness Martignetti feels for his characters, especially the wart-covered and the damaged.

“Humor definitely comes from pain,” Martignetti says. “Sitting around that dinner table every night, knowing my parents loathed each other, and being on the receiving end of the cruelty at times—you had to laugh to survive it.” Whatever the source of the humor, the comic moments stay with the reader long after the stories end. Like the image of a young Anthony carrying a bag full of cash from the family’s store in the North End to Shawmut Bank, Nonno, his gun-toting grandfather, a few steps behind, a pistol in his pocket, ready to take down any bad guys they might encounter. Or the scenes of his mother’s ill-fated efforts to end his nail-biting habit by gluing fake nails over his gnawed real ones. The boy develops a craving for the fake nails, and the mother doles them out to him during outings to keep him quiet. In another story, the writer experiences young love, and is fascinated and horrified by its possibilities. “I had no idea what to do with her—I was a rabbit chasing a tricycle.”

Like most memoirists, Martignetti considered the impact the darker stories might have on his family, but decided long ago to “honor my family with the truth.” Even when it means revealing the ugliest moments in a family’s life? The brutal criticism he endured at his father’s hands, the punishing bait-and-switch of love his mother used on him, his own moral failings? “You can’t put something under the scrutiny of observation and not see the dark side—unless you don’t want to see it.” Maybe there’s no difference between lunatics and heroes? He laughs. “Wherever you cast light, there will be shadows.”


“You can’t put something under the scrutiny of observation and not see the dark side—unless you don’t want to see it.”


Yet, as the characters emerge, dive and resurface in story after story, we begin to see the complexities of real lives. The harsh view we have of some characters softens in places, revealing the author’s understanding of human frailties. In Joe, we meet Martignetti’s father, a loving but unpredictably critical and angry man who one night, though tired after a grueling day, finds time to pull a six-year-old Anthony on a broken sled through the snow after a long work day. Though the son idolizes his father, we hear the far off drum of disappointment he will bring his father in the future, just by being himself: sensitive, curious, creative—different than the kind of man Joe admires. The conflicts between father and son rumble throughout the book, but the tenderness we first saw in Joe reverberates even to the end: “Some folks think he messed up with me. Some think I messed up. Everybody’s got an opinion. As far as I can tell, people get stuck together in this life. Sometimes it feels like love—and there’s nothing more you can say.”

The late January light is fading through the window by Martignetti’s desk. He looks down at his watch, then feels for a silver vial he wears on a chain around his neck. He empties out a handful of pills, pops them into his mouth and washes them down. “Gotta keep the chemical warfare going.” He smiles, remembering his first day of chemo, the day before that big crowd at the Cary Hall book launch. He’d lost some vision by then, some hearing also, was in graphic pain, and possibly in a mild state of shock at the combination of events: the cancer diagnosis, the publication of his first book, and the book launch the next night. When the moment came, he looked into the hall at a buzzing crowd of old fans and friends—and new ones, he hoped—waiting to hear what he had to give them. “I said, I’m going out there even if I’ve got to wear a johnny. This is happening.”

The fight in Martignetti is palpable, in person and in his writing. He says he wants to walk the edge in his writing. “If I’m not writing about something dangerous, what’s the point?” He’s got what he needs: his wife and family, Buddhism, the boxing gloves and assorted ninja weapons, his writing, and a heart full of gratitude for the community of lunatics and heroes around him.





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