Review: Juan Blea. Butterfly Warrior. Santa Fe, NM: Sherman Asher Publishing, 2006. 1-890932-30-2
This week, I'm happy to feature work from a small independent press, Juan Blea's outstanding and totally fun novel, Butterfly Warrior, from Santa Fe New Mexico's Sherman Asher Publishing.
Debut novelist Blea has a reader wondering what Butterfly Warrior is all about, with an opening chapter featuring Manny Lopez, morosely drunk, hallucinating, and contemplating suicide. Poor Manny. He lives for his music but his stiff fingers refuse to let him play guitar like he used to. His wife has left him, but it is Anna he really yearns for. Anna’s ankle bears the same butterfly tattoo incised above Manny’s heart. Manny feels abandoned by the virgin, his mother's religion, and worst of all, abandoned by his butterfly spirit. Izpapalotl, Manny believes, is an Aztec diety who “protected the souls of warriors killed in battle who returned to the earth as butterflies.”
There Manny sits in his shack, sharing a glass of wine with an empty chair, conversing with his imagined wife, while pointing a shotgun at the butterfly tatooed on his heart. In this chapter, he doesn't kill himself. This guy is a total burned out wino, we think. Where is this novel heading? If he shoots himself, why would we care? Instead, Manny phones one of his oldest friends, Whitey.
Chapter two introduces Whitey, who narrates much of the novel. "Why did Manny do it? " Whitey asks, looking back. He relives that last phone call, ending with Manny pulling the trigger. At this turn of events, it appears Blea wants to write a psychological autopsy, to have White explore his childhood and friendships, to look into things that cannot be known to sane people, but whose origins might lead to a satisfactory account of Manny's life.
This is the turn the novel appears to take as succeeding chapters take us back to the day Whitey's family moves into the rural Santa Fe neighborhood, and move the story up from there. Blea uses the tactic to illuminate his characters with ancient Mexican religion and mysticism. The butterfly and wasp image flits in and out of key plot points, so the nationalism is not gratuitous.
Manny and his mother share a home with El Requintero. Cuate and his sister Anna live down the street. El Requintero teaches Manny and Cuate to play. Manny's fingers are gifted, as are Cuate’s. Whitey begs to learn but El Requintero flatly ignores the boy's importuning. Manny becomes Whitey's teacher. Whitey learns to play with a competency that approaches Manny's, but still, El Requintero refuses to teach Whitey because he lacks soulfulness.
Cuate's a wild kid with a devil-may-care attitude and born leadership. Anna hangs back, but with Whitey, Manny, and Cuate. They make an inseparable team, as children. With adolescence comes separation and ugliness. Cuate observes his thirteen year old sister kiss Whitey with a lot of passion. Whitey doesn't yet understand the feelings he has, but Anna and Cuate do. Cuate threatens Whitey to stay away from his sister. When, over the next few years, Whitey complies, befuddled Anna can't figure out why she cannot attract Whitey's affections.
Eventually, El Requintero agrees to teach Whitey, who learns quickly because Manny has been a superb teacher. The musical trio become Santa Fe favorites, playing their hearts out for tips in bars and weddings, developing a following. Once the friends reach the threshold of adulthood, they separate. Anna goes off to Chicago. Whitey off to college. Cuate and Manny stay home, continuing their playing. Manny falls hard on his luck and Whitey gets him a job at Whitey’s plant.
This sentimental story of lifelong friendships turns into a technology thriller with Manny’s funeral, when Anna returns to Santa Fe from Chicago. Whitey has moved to the rich side of Santa Fe and never--it is painfully obvious, never– comes back to the neighborhood to visit his mother, or his friends. It's Manny's late nite phone call, a voice out of the past, that reconnects Whitey to the old neighborhood and sets the novel in motion.
Whitey works at one of Santa Fe's high tech industries. A computer programmer by training, Whitey's become the marketing manager for Dr. Sullivan's nanobot factory. Manny's mother believes something at work made Manny sick and drove him to suicide. She believes Sullivan and Whitey are cloning babies and it is this evil that infected Manny's spirit. The reader knows but Manny’s mom doesn’t, that her intuition is not far from wrong, and she sets off with a mother's determination to seek justice for her son. The novel becomes a page turner when the mother and the doctor come face to face.
Manny's mother discovers what really killed Manny. And it now has its clutches in Cuate's brain. Cuate's fingers begin to stiffen and it's only a short time now that Cuate, too, will be developing the symptoms Manny had that led to his loss of music, his mind, and death.
As with any thriller, disclosing more detail would be unfair to readers. Blea writes a thoroughly enjoyable story. Using a technique featuring exceedingly short chapters, and providing only enough detail to advance his plot, some elements do seem to jump out of nowhere.
Blea’s novel suffers from a few notable quirks. Italicized Spanish always disappoints me. Blea writes extremely economical prose, getting into the details then exiting. I wish he’d yielded to his obvious writerly instincts because the action at the end has a truncated feel. Explore description, develop the action with more deliberation; the technothriller plot comes with little forewarning and too abruptly to be completely convincing. The Aztec mysticism could be softpedaled; El Requintero’s mysticism explored more deeply and thoughtfully.
Blea’s use of music makes for some of the novel’s best pages, and there’s a riff on Thomas Wolfe that will bring a smile to your face at Blea’s playfulness. I’d like the story to delve into Tomas’ (Whitey’s real name) character. Whitey abandoned his history and his music when he grows to adulthood. When he finds his old self again, under Anna’s and Cuate’s spell and after playing his guitar after long years silence, a Manny-like monologue would have been fascinating. The question of this novel is “Why did Manny do it?”, the next novel, “Why did Whitey become Whitey?” Besides, the technoevil of the piece, a nanowasp, is Tommy’s idea, a fact that gets lost in the rosy glow at the end.
You read the novel you get, don’t you? And in Juan Blea’s Butterfly Warrior, I didn’t get all the novel I wanted. That’s a good thing, by the way, and a fact that readers who get a copy of the novel for themselves will enjoy as well. Visit the publisher’s website or ask your local indie bookseller to order your copy of Juan Blea’s Butterfly Warrior. Tell ‘em you read about it at La Bloga.
There we are, the third Tuesday in the five-Tuesday month of April 2007. Three weeks until Cinco de Mayo, and less to the second anniversary of the huge pro-Democracy rallies of Mayday 2006. See you next week.