The first question a certain reader asks upon finishing the 357th page of Oscar Casares’ Amigoland is, “what’s the point?”
A certain reader might be one who sees no warmth and humor in nursing homes. This certain reader has put a parent in a nursing home as that parent’s life ebbs away. Perhaps that parent has disappeared into dementia, gone the personality remembered across 60 years of growing up with a lively, alive, person who looks like, sounds like, and many ways acts like the patient sitting in a wheelchair, or restrained in a reclining bed, asking “why can’t I go home?” For such a reader, a nursing home is nothing but Hell. Smells. Hallways filled with wheelchaired old people sitting silently, some shaking, mumbling, others with vacant eyes staring at institutional greenish white walls. The overburdened staff expressing forced patience and strained kindness as they change a diaper or wipe an ass.
Turtles. That’s what Don Fidencio Rosales calls the women who sit silently watching emptily in his rest home. Fidencio is one of the lucky old. Ninety-two years old, a stroke has slowed him significantly. His children live away from Brownsville, except a daughter who can’t handle the old man’s needs, not even a visit. But he keeps an active alertness about him, much of the time. He feels victimized by the attendants, his daughter, and her husband “the son of a bitch”. Someone is stealing his few remaining possessions, he’s sure of it. And when his missing stuff turns up here and there, Don Fidencio is certain the staff just wants to blame him, make him feel inept.
Control, that’s what his life is all about. Lack of control. The staff—Fidencio cannot remember their names and assigns them identities such as The One With White Pants, or The One With Big Ones—decides when and what he eats, when he bathes, how he walks and where. At mealtime they insist he wear a bib. When Fidencio prefers a napkin tucked into his collar, they coax and cajole, and if he won’t cooperate he doesn’t eat. Punto final. Control.
Out of the blue one day comes Fidencio’s little brother, Don Celestino, twenty years Fidencio’s junior. Celestino is also losing parts of his memory and independence, but he lives in his own home, drives his own car, hears now and again from his kids, picks up the cleaning woman for weekly trysts. Socorro commutes daily from the other side to clean houses, once a week to Celestino’s, only to return to her mother’s house shared with a spinster aunt, to be blamed for being a childless widow.
It’s not that Celestino is not happy to be an old man having sex on demand with a late-thirties Mexicana. He’s not anxious to inform his daughter or the neighbors he’s taken a concubine, such a young one. Socorro’s mother and tía are just as disappointed that Socorro’s lover won’t come into the house but parks outside and honks his horn. Socorro, upset at being denied in this manner, learns of Celestino’s brother and inveigles her employer-lover to begin a relationship with that part of the Rosales clan, so she can fit into Celestino’s life other than merely his Viagra-powered darkened bedroom.
There’s a lot of familial strife filling the triumvirate. Fidencio with his environment. Celestino with his children. Socorro with her mother. They intersect in Fidencio’s memory of tales his tocayo grandfather used to spin. Celestino doubts Fidencio’s memory. Grandfather was kidnapped by indios, as a seven year old, from the rancho near Linares, carried north of the river, and abandoned there. It’s a tale the tocayos shared but Celestino--being so young by the time the grandfather was so old—has no memory other than family legend. Logically, how can this or that be true? Take me down there, Fidencio challenges. We’ll find the old rancho and prove it once and for all.
Author Oscar Casares stretches credibility when he has Celestino, abetted by Socorro, help Fidencio escape the rest home and take a bus journey from the frontera down into Linares in search of grandfather’s rancho and the legend of the little boy carried off by indios. Mexico’s generally a benevolent mother to the travelers. The journey is not without its potholes, but the three bumble their way past customs and the Army, and except for a pay toilet, find a hospitable welcome wherever they travel.
When Fidencio finally arrives at his goal, a place where Celestino can see for himself that the tales are no fiction but history, the author’s point begins to emerge. Dying well. This is a country for old men. And old women. And caring children.
Don Fidencio’s fate to spend his dying days in that hellhole rest home gets a reprieve. Don Celestino’s refusal to acknowledge Socorro’s legitimacy and importance in his life reaches a climax and he finds himself making the right decision. Socorro’s tether to frontera economics and a domineering matriarchy slackens with distance from those pernicious influences. She finds the immediacy of independence refreshingly liberating, never too old for a fresh start.
Amigoland is a fairy tale with a fairy tale ending. To a certain reader, it’s an antidote to the bitter actuality that took a parent, a reality perhaps in store for oneself. Shake that off. My dad used to warn, “pa’lla va la sombra.” True enough. But for now, kick off your shoes, pick up Amigoland, get into the story, smile with Fidencio, Celestino, and Socorro as they age their own way into whatever awaits them in their final days or years. Whatever time you have left, they learn, don’t muck it up.
A welcome feature of this Vroman's reading is the reliance upon the writers themselves. Vroman's agent welcomes the handful of customers and turns the event over to the writers who proceed without a moderator.
Quinn sets the tone du jour, reading with quiet restraint. She takes her plot up to a key moment then stops. Wisely, she advertises her wares and tells her audience to buy the book to learn what happens next. Good tactic.
Sandra Ramos O'Briant continues the technique of quiet understatement but with somewhat greater vocal variety and animation to her reading. The style brings a welcome freshness to the event, suggesting the book is not a "more of the same" literary collection, but something worth acquiring and having signed. It's a key style for the last reader of the day. An author's panel doesn't want an audience to ask "is this all there is?"
O'Briant also has put in significant preparation. Rather than read text straight from the book, she's printed out a manuscript. This is a grand idea for any reader. She can print in large type that allows the kind of superior eye contact she employs. This also reduces the chances of losing her place in the text when she looks up. O'Briant appears more comfortable with the setting, probably a factor of her personality, but surely reinforced by a reliable set of reading pages.