Fiesta de Muertos (partial), by Demetrio Garcia found on ChicagoReader.com
The killings in Mexico will continue as long as the oligarchy (“The wealthy 20 or so families and their lackeys and running dogs who have ruled Mexico since colonial times,” T.C. fumes in an e-mail) can depend on a Quixotic sense of resignation and fatalism from the majority of the repressed citizenry.
But one indication that the blood of Mexico may be boiling over can be found in two brief but startling passages in Oscar Casares’ debut novel, Amigoland.
My interest in novels set in Mexico is what urged me to request a review copy of Amigoland, foolishly undeterred by the advance praise from Book Page that the novel was “perfect summer reading” (obviously overlooking the fact that the title was scheduled for an August release).
Amigoland, set primarily in a small town on the Tex-Mex border, tells the story of two aging brothers, Don Fidencio and Don Celestino Rosales, who must recognize the fact that the end of their days and nights on Earth are near, and that they should no longer let a long-simmering family feud stand between them.
With the aid of his good-natured lover and housekeeper, a Mexican National named Socorro, Don Celestino liberates his 95-year old brother from the rest home where he has been caged and imprisoned by his daughter (the rest home is the improbably-named Amigoland of the title) and the trio embark on a journey over the poverty-stricken back roads of northern Mexico to prove or disprove the existence of the lost and possibly mythical El Rancho Capote, home of the brothers’ grandfather.
“Think Sunshine Boys go south of the border,” Cristina Garcia, author of Dreaming in Cuban, remarked in her advance praise of Casares’ novel, and she was in no way short of the mark in her assessment.
Amigoland is pure mass market fiction, the sort of engaging but lightweight entertainment one might comes across while browsing the book stalls in airport gift shops. The story, like its characters, is simplistic, shallow, and superficial. In this novel, Casares’ writing (unlike much of his short fiction on display in the collection, Brownsville) is stylistically flat with no diversions or subplots, and the supporting characters, such as the daughter who plays warden to Fidencio’s prisoner, are underdeveloped, if developed at all beyond the role of pawns to move the slim plot forward.
If treated with the corrosive acid of pragmatic criticism (a critical method that judges a work by its success in achieving its intended goal) then Amigoland works if the author’s intent was to examine the horrific indignities of aging and the terrifying degree of neglect, scorn, and condescension that Americans heap upon their elderly.
However, the reader of Amigoland never gets the impression that the Rosales brothers’ sense of ethnic identity is restored or reinforced by the journey to the family ranchito in Mexico, typically the “inspirational” goal of such a stock plot. It certainly does not help that the mechanics of the book are flawed; Casares more than telegraphs the conclusion of the book in the second act – he practically scribbles it in the margins.
Even in lightweight entertainment like Amigoland, though, the ghosts of Mexico refuse to be silenced, appearing in two brief passages that are responsible for the birth of this month’s extensive column, the catalyst that launched a weeks-long mediation on Bolano, Paz, Traven, and the thousands of slain and missing.
The first brush with the dead occurs at a Mexican border town near the US checkpoint:
Several chapters later, at a bus station in the northern city of Ciudad Victoria, nestled at the base of the lush Sierra Madre Oriental mountains, Fidencio opens up a newspaper abandoned by another traveler:
In the photos on the second page, a dead teenage girl, her torso wrapped in what looked like a black plastic trash bag, lay on a small sand dune. Another photo showed her wearing a formal dress and a tiara. He began to read about the tragedy, a strangulation, and about the young woman’s distraught mother, then about the possible suspects.
When the author of a sitcom-styled novel about Mexican heritage cannot resist mentioning the carnage in modern-day Mexico, then it is fair to assume that the murders have become a significant part of the national identity.