What a carnal novel this is. Three hundred pages of bodily functions and dysfunctions. A book full of seepages and oozings and assorted excretions: the housemaid farting in the bath, characters urinating on themselves, an undocumented border crosser having her period at just the wrong moment, the untold joys of defecation, projectile vomiting in a bar. And then there are the physical incapacities of the main characters: an old lady with one leg shorter than the other, a man with lung cancer and an agonizing corn on his foot, a wheelchair-bound woman with the legs of a five-year-old.
But the biggest, most insistent physical signature of the novel is an itch (a comezón). An unfulfilled desire. This is the theme of the book: longing. Not a soul walks the pages of this story without longing for something, whether it’s love, sex, or just a little late-night company. It’s a great theme and fortunately for us, Denise Chavez is more than capable of carrying it.
There is a wonderfully seedy cast of characters, many of whom we meet in the ramshackle bar of their ramshackle New Mexico town. The bar – El Mil Recuerdos (The Thousand Memories) – is at the heart of the town and the story, and the scenes here remind one of Eugene O’Neill’s ‘The Iceman Cometh’: everyone harboring dreams, resentments, failure, as they live out their days on a bar-stool.
The novel’s enormous appeal lies in the voice. Code-switching deftly between English and street-Spanish, Chavez’s narration is hilarious, profane and poetic – and sometimes all three in the same sentence. In other words, it could be the voice of an aging border town lothario who’s seen too much, drunk too much, loved too little.
Which is more or less how you could describe the novel’s most vividly drawn character, Arnulfo Olivárez, Master of Ceremonies at the town’s fiestas. Dying of lung cancer, Arnulfo is lovingly portrayed as a deeply flawed man. He is cynical, vain, and neglectful of his wife, and he’s a drunkard. He loves only his crippled daughter and his dog. His other pleasures are those of the flesh – the memory of sex and the taste of his favorite dish: tripas (guts). ‘That’s about all he had left, the taste of food on his tongue … the last organ to go.’ (p17)
The novel begins and ends with Arnulfo hosting the town’s big fiestas. In between, we watch the comings and goings of Comezón as if watching a telenovela. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, and through these we get a portrait of the town. Early on, we learn what Comezón used to be: ‘just dust on the banks of the Rio Grande … nothing but mesquite and espinas … vast empty land full of thorns.’ (p16) Not much has changed. A few squat buildings have sprung up, a church, a plaza, and a population of ne’er-do-wells and dreamers.
The characters who populate the town are, in most cases, inspired creations. Arnulfo’s daughter, the saintly Juliana, confined to a wheelchair, falls in love with the less saintly Padre Manolo, a rapidly unraveling priest, and we feel their longing. In El Mil Recuerdos, bar-owner Rey is a haunted ex-immigration officer, too compassionate for the tasks life has set him. Isá, the ugly and indispensable maid who takes care of Juliana, is a supremely earthy creation. Interrupted in her bath by the despised Arnulfo, she lets forth a rasping fart whose odor follows Arnulfo out of the room.
If the voice and the characterizations are an unabashed delight, the novel’s form occasionally slows down the story. We start afresh in the mind of a new character every chapter and this comes at the cost of narrative drive. Another criticism concerns the occasional overdoing of the toilet humor. Bodily excretions are only funny if they’re unexpected.
But overall the voice is so compelling – so wise and warm and full of humor – that we find ourselves swept along and wondering which itch will be scratched before we reach the end.
If the novel is about longing, it’s also about love in all its forms: love of family, love of flesh, love of food and drink, love of companionship, love of life. This sentiment illuminates the book. The songs of longing that it quotes in the original Spanish are love songs, too. And in small gestures – the neglected wife Emilia squeezes her husband’s hand; Arnulfo learns to love his dog; Rey clasps his barmaid/admirer in a slow dance – we find that Chavez has written her own love song to the borderlands and the people who live there. And what a song it is.