Payback is not sweet. Last week, after I'd gotten word that PBS has funded Ken Burns to ignore Chicano and other Latino soldiers in PBS/Burns' seven-part film essay on World War II, I got an email from MoveOn.org begging my support for PBS against some cretin in Congress who wants to cut off funding for PBS. I used to sign that petition in knee-jerk reaction time. I no longer find myself moved by MoveOn's plea. Not that I support the ignorant rightwing pendejos who want to foment culture war, but I figure if PBS intends to ignore me, I shall now ignore PBS and its supporters on grounds that the WWII series shows PBS' true colors. (I have word that a meeting of some sort will take place between raza activists and PBS representatives in Washington DC on March 6, to discuss the Burns series. I’ll update you if there’s anything to report.)
Paranoia strikes east. The Los Angeles Times has an irritating pattern of ignoring arts events that take place on the city's east side. Sounds like PBS all over again, but unlike TV, I read the Times every day. Reading the Sunday Times' gallery openings, one gets a sense that art stops at La Brea Avenue, no culture exists east of that dividing line. The Times seems to be moving easterly, however. But I worry about the implications. Sunday's Times (2/25/07) featured two, count 'em, two Chicano artists. In West magazine, Artemio Rodriguez gets five pages. Rodriguez creates in the spirit and mold of Jose Guadalupe Posada. He's an outstanding artist whose linocuts decorate the cover of Gilb's Woodcuts of Women, and several of my walls. In the Calendar section, Gronk (also on one of my walls) gets a below-the-fold page one feature. Given the Times' west side bias, these two pieces showing up on the same day make me wonder if maybe the Times reached its annual quota for east side coverage and the two pieces write finis to the Times' coverage of art on our side of town?
Dirty Girls Social Club Writer Takes Ambitious Third Step
Review: Make Him Look Good. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez.
St. Martin's Press. April 2006. ISBN: 0312349661
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez' first novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, made for an enjoyable romp through the trials of an assorted handful of Latinas. Each of las sucias faces commonplace issues like infidelity, abuse, stereotyping, bilingualism. In addition, Valdes-Rodriguez uses her characters' ethnicity to help draw parallels and distinctions between Cuban, Mexican, and Puerto Rican latinhood. All in all, Dirty Girls filled a useful space in U.S. latina literature.
There's no good reason I missed Valdes-Rodriguez's second novel, 2005's Playing With Boys. However, because her first was enjoyable and well-written, when I happened across her third novel, Make Him Look Good, I opened it eagerly.
Then nearly put it back. The style–adolescent diarist replete with italics for emphasis-- just about gags me with a spoon, you know what I mean? Persistence offers some reward, however. As with Dirty Girls, the author finds resources in fluff to weave a solid enough fabric to make it worthwhile to read all the way to the 376th final page. This hidden value starts to reveal itself when the story introduces a Serbian teenager named Jasminka, who narrates the shelling and rape of her Bosnian village. In a refugee camp, her beauty and thin frame attracts the eye of a recruiter and she soon finds herself a runway model in Paris. Jasminka's, sadly, is the weakest voice in the story because the writer unsuccessfully mimics the clipped syntax of Jasminka's second language English. Internal monologues would take place in well-developed grammatical sentences. Fortunately, Valdes-Rodriguez can’t keep it up and Jasminka’s speeches become increasingly fluid and standard as the story weaves to its close.
Valdes-Rodriguez undertakes an ambitious task of fleshing out a myriad of distinctive characters, using first-person narration that grows a bit confusing after a while, and a standard third person voice to move along the story. In addition to Jasminka, the cast includes the two sisters of the Cuban well-to-do refugee Gotay family, the twenty-something live-at-home Milan, the central character who opens the novel, and her wildly successful, gorgeous and boyfriend-stealing sister Geneva, with their mother and father to add texture. Then there's Ricky Biscayne, Mexican-Cuban sex object Latin pop star making a cross-over to big market pop. Jasminka is Ricky's neglected wife, starved for food and starved for love, haunted by the ethnic cleansing of her village and Ricky's regular forays into other women's beds. Add to the mix the incredibly slimy Jill Sanchez, fading movie star cosmetics-clothing entrepreneur who's been using Ricky as a sex toy for many years.
Then there's Ricky's secret of success. Matthew Baker, a low self-esteem college pal, whom we initially meet as a mystery man playing the backgrounds at Ricky's Tonight Show performance. Ricky's gotten rich off Matthew's talent. Matthew writes the songs and his powerful voice sweetens Ricky’s vocals, carrying the load. Poor Matthew burns a candle for a beautiful woman who's dumped him three times already, coming back to Matthew's arms on the rebound from one or another fling. Now she’s married a musician and earns her living performing with her husband on cruise ships sailing out of Miami. Matthew knows he’s a loser, but admits he would take her back in a heartbeat. In fact, the songwriter has moved to Miami not to be near his job with Ricky Biscayne, but to be able to catch a glimpse of the bandsinger, when she hits port.
The Gotay girls’ mother, a noted Miami talk show radio host, sees the tension between her daughters and coerces the two of them to take a sisterly peacemaking cruise. Milan, Geneva, and mom arrive at the berth just as Matthew is there to catch a forlorn glimpse of his unavailable love. Milan and Matthew collide, the chanteuse notices the commotion and calls down to Matthew, “Loser!” Milan is on the phone, her bookgroup has selected a title that Milan shouts out, it’s a novel called Loser. Matthew thinks Milan directs that at him. This is the cute meet that eventually brings Milan and Matthew together to live happily ever after.
But Valdes-Rodriguez has a lot more up her sleeve than Milan and Matthew. There’s the story of Irene and Sophia. Irene’s a single mother of the beautiful, talented Sophia, who, it develops, is Ricky’s unacknowledged daughter. Then there’s Nestor, Irene’s co-worker and the only one who supports her when word gets out Irene will sue the fire department for gender discrimination.
Nestor’s story, although minor, offers the most delightful handful of pages in the book. Nestor lives alone, nurturing the memory of his dead wife and daughter. As Nestor’s love for Irene grows, his dead wife’s spirit recognizes he’ll finally release them. Nestor’s cats tell the story in conversation with the ghosts. “Why is he so nervous?” asks the cat. The woman strokes his shiny black fur. “He’s going on a date,” she says. Chester doesn’t know what a date is, and says so. “He’s found a woman he really likes,” says the woman. “They’re having dinner tonight, alone.” “We’re glad,” says the little girl. “Why are you glad?” asks Chester. . . . “Oh, Chester,” says the woman, “We have places to go. And we haven’t been able to go yet because Nestor has needed us.” This section, coming in the last 25 pages of the novel, is absolutely brilliant and earns Valdes-Rodriguez tons of tolerance in my book.
In the end, Make Him Look Good is a revenge comedy. Slimy Ricky and slimy Jill get their delicious comeuppances, the Gotay sisters become genuine friends, Irene and Nestor settle down, Sophia gets Ricky’s money and a sister, Jasminka’s daughter Danijela. Jill becomes a laughingstock, Ricky climbs on the born again wagon to rekindle his career—Jill told him to cut a religious album and that’s what he’s done. Those are not spoilers, by the way, they're reasons to turn the page and read on!
Jasminka gets one of the last speeches watching Ricky on television with all his phoney expressions shilling the new album. “I look at Alma. Alma looks at Irene. Irene looks at Sophia. Sophia looks at Milan. Milan looks at Matthew. Matthew looks at Geneva. Geneva looks at Violeta. And then, as everyone looks at everyone else, and as if guided by spirit greater than ourselves, we all begin to laugh.”
I remember reading Alisa Valdez-Rodriguez’ stories in the LA Times when their now-faded Latino Initiative was going great guns. She had a wicked insightfulness that skewered her subjects, but always with the restraints imposed by a big time newspaper editor. I miss some of that editorial oversight in Make Him Look Good, but it’s encouraging seeing her unleash that wit with almost total abandon. I don’t remember what Maureen Dowd complained about chick lit, and I don’t care. Judging by Make Him Look Good, I’m on the lookout for Valdez-Rodriguez’ number four. You go, woman.
Uau. Can you believe it’s already the end of February, 2007. A month like any other month, except we were there! See you next week.