TONY PARTLY CLOUDY by Nick Rollins

The back cover of Tony Partly Cloudy states that the story combines elements of comedy, satire and romance in the style of My Cousin Vinny or Analyze This— all true. But when I think of summing up the story I only need one word— happiness. For me, even though it was published in 2013, Nick Rollin’s debut is the feel-good book of 2016.

…the tale of a Mafia goon who defies the odds to become a famous TV weather anchor. 

If the word “fluff” comes to mind after reading the description above— fuggedaboudit! The tone of Tony Partly Cloudy is light-hearted, but the content is serious. The story opens with Tony Bartolicotti— who becomes known as Tony Partly Cloudy after his classmates deliberately mispronounce his name— at the age of seven. He is a boy with a gift for accurately predicting the weather just by standing outside and inhaling the air; he’s a fascinating character. Even more curious is the environment where Rollins chose to place his hero. Tony could’ve been tucked into a private school where he was picked on because of his name and out-of-the-norm passion for weather. In such an environment, Tony might’ve easily morphed into the woe-is-me-I’m-so-misunderstood teen, who turns into an antisocial adult and either seeks revenge or is saved by love. But Rollins chose not to be predictable. And even with Tony’s Italian background and a father that drives for a moving line and does stuff for the family business, Rollins successfully avoids the well-worn Michael Corleone storyline because the focus in Tony Partly Cloudy is on character.

My bookshelves are stuffed with characters I’ve bonded with so strongly, I could re-enact the scene in Wuthering Heights where Catherine Earnshaw says, “I am Heathcliff,” every second for at least an hour simply by substituting his name for Scarlett, Jack, Edna, Mayumi, and the list goes on. But it wasn’t until I read Tony Partly Cloudy that I actually saw, as a writer, how a relatable character is born.

Rollins begins with inherent conflict. Tony, who would like to turn his gift into a career, is surrounded by family and friends who expect him to follow in his father’s footsteps. And Tony’s father is not an open-for-discussion kind of guy.

“So you need to ask Frankie B how much money he makes.”

Vinnie was starting to get it. But his casual use of Tony’s Father’s name was teenage bravado— nobody under the age of twenty-one would ever address the man to his face as anything less formal than Mr. Bartolicotti or sir, not if they liked the way their teeth were currently arranged.

The issue of parental approval begins in childhood and often lingers into adulthood. By establishing this obstacle for Tony on page one, Rollins effortlessly connects his readers to his hero.

Frankie looked at his son a longtime. There might’ve been something resembling affection in his gaze. Or at least an absence of murderous intent— with Frankie that was about the most you could hope for.

The above is an example of where Rollins shines as a writer. He is all about specifics, and those specifics come through his characters’ inner landscapes. The reader is always clear about how the characters in the scene see each other, how they feel about the exchange and what the impact for them is personally. But the real pay off is watching Tony evaluate and re-evaluate his relationships.

Tony had never seen his father— the legendary Frankie B— being so…so…nice to anybody. Frankie was usually a blustery take-no-prisoners guy, and suddenly he was all humility and manners. It was weird to watch, but it also reminded Tony of exactly who he’d been playing poker with for the last few years. […] Tony smiled, still getting accustomed to the concept of actually liking his father. He had always loved him. But this liking— this was new.

Initially, I questioned the wisdom of starting Tony’s story at the age of seven; however, the transformation of his relationships run parallel to his internal growth, and this combination is the reason I found him adorable. Adorable is probably not the adjective usually associated with a male protagonist with ties to the family business— no one on the inside calls it the Mafia— but it fits, and this quality is one of Tony’s strengths; it’s also the obstacle to his career. Tony’s adorableness and his naiveté about life is the reason everyone inside and outside the family business like him. Unfortunately, part of what makes him adorable is the way he talks, which reminds everyone he meets— especially his boss— of the characters in GoodFellas and The Godfather. This is not the kind of image the television networks want to endorse; after beating the odds to make a living forecasting the weather, Tony’s career hits a plateau.

About this time, I wondered if the story would fizzle out because even the importance of Tony’s gift appeared to have faded from the frontline of the story. Then Nick Rollins flexed another one of his strengths; he takes advantage of what’s integral to the story— no deus ex machina for him. He uses Tony’s personality and members of his family to ratchet up the tension and catapult the story forward. Once these elements were recharged I remembered Tony’s rise to fame was inevitable (this plot point is in the back cover synopsis). But the delivery of this underdog element of the story is handled so well, his success felt unexpected and made me cry. Then just when everything is going well for Tony, Rollins dips back into Tony’s past and all that is good unravels. This left hook not only increases the tension, but also realigns the reader with Tony on a deeper level. In order to stop the dominoes of destruction in his life, he must come to terms with who he is and what he stands for.

In a year where politics and personal agendas seemed to have hijacked the focus of what it means to live a useful and compassionate life, I can’t think of a better book to read before heading into 2017. Tony Partly Cloudy is filled with humor and suspense, but the secret ingredient on every page is heart; I have no doubt that Tony’s journey will help readers unite, heal and hope, always.