Review: Alfredo Véa. The Mexican Flyboy. Norman OK: Oklahoma University Press, 2016.
The news made me nauseous and when I looked at the photograph my stomach churned. Taggers had spread their filth across one hundred feet of wall that listed the names of missing-in-action or POW Vietnam Veterans. Outraged commenters on social media and in the newspaper concluded the poorly-executed bubble writing was the work of possible groseros ranging from disrespectful punks to thugs whose ignorance cost them a sense of history. The racist fringe yammered for deportation of unknown asshole taggers, sure to be raza in their view. (But then, some these tipas tipos would see us deported for reading while brown.)
By dint of unsurpassed imagination, drudgery work of historical research, plus personal experience, author Véa has crafted a literary masterpiece that deserves to be snapped off the shelves upon its release by University of Oklahoma Press, come June 15, 2016.
Students of the novel, of Chicano Literature, speculative fiction, interpersonal communication, science fiction, viticulturists and oenologists, and the modern school of United States literature, are going to be talking about The Mexican Flyboy for a generation.
Justice doesn’t have time limits, nor does history, in Simon Vegas’ hands, not when he sets his mind to undue miscarriages of justice. He researches lynchings, classical lovers, ancient maps. With accurate data, Simon has the ability to go back in time and make things better and no one's the wiser, except other rescued souls.
Time makes a difference in reading The Mexican Flyboy. The novel packs the kind of complexities that envelop and wrap back upon themselves making for near 340 pages of plot, surprise, revelation, and philosophical conundra. Carry the novel wherever you travel so as to fit-in a page or two when a moment’s down time allows, or to reprise cool stuff you come across, verify an allusion or a twist, let it sidetrack you.
Principally, The Mexican Flyboy’s magic depends on Vegas’ need to turn time back to a defined moment. Arriving physically at the moment say, a kitten dies, or a man is lynched, the time-shifted persona can step in and prevent suffering and death, not by changing events, but by flying the lost souls to a condo in Boca Raton FL.
The Mexican Flyboy is Simon Vegas. He understands time, in his world time flows past current events but always exists in its own dimension concurrent to what’s happening now. Instead of remaining in his own time sphere, Simon reconstructs a device out of time-immemorial, the Antikythera, to go back and pull Ethel and Julius Rosenberg off the death gurney, to yank Joan of Arc off the pyre, to reunite long separated lovers even though they’d maintained a secret love.
Vegas is incapable of undoing properly delivered consequences, like those meted to many of the pintos in San Quentin prison, where Simon delivers some of the novel's most pointed yet surreal sections. Readers will get a kick from Simon reading the riot act via public address to his captive audience. Simon's communication to a diabolical prisoner will hold readers on the edge of their seats.
Much as he wants, Vegas is unable to resurrect his family killed in a stupid accident, nor fix his life subsequent to being orphaned, nor to escape having a hand mangled in a bizarre Vietnam firefight, or probably keep his day job since while he's off rewriting history he's not doing his day job.
He’s fortunate to have Sophia, his wife who lives up to her name, with a baby on the way, and clever friends like the real-life Roberto Cantu, in the role of Hephaestus Segundo, a key scientist who helps Vegas build the functioning Antikythera device.
The most memorable event in Simon’s career revolves around a Chicano in Vietnam, Vegas’ best friend in the platoon. Fulgencio Garza had lived a typical life back on the block. Has teen sex a single time and she gets pregnant. They’re not married but he’s committed to his five year-old son in Port Arthur and would go back and do things right if he could. As the ramp of a helicopter is about to open onto a raging ambush, Garza steps forward regardless of a conviction he will never see the boy again.
Because Fulgencio is killed in the natural course of events, his death lies beyond the antikythera’s influence. Even when, twenty two years later, Simon folds back time to the instant before the NVA round fulfills Fulgencio’s vision, time and magic offer no alternative and Fulgencio dies.
It doesn’t help Simon’s feelings that the maniacal platoon sergeant is shouting “We got fifteen grunts on this chopper, and three or four of them is about to get unlucky. Somebody’s fixin’ to die tonight! Somebody’s fixin’ to go all gray and cold. Somebody’s mama is gonna jerk upright in her bed and feel her son’s last moment on this earth.”(198) None of this will ever change for Simon.
But Simon can take Garza's twenty-two year old son back to that chaotic moment in the helicopter. He's an asshole. A son with contempt for his mother. “She had me, then she went to work and let me watch television and run the streets. She didn’t make me go to school. I don’t remember her ever bein’ home with me. All she ever did was work and cook and . . . cry.” She was crying about the boy's father, who is another object of the mucked up kid's, Fulgencio, Jr.’s, contempt. “Why should I give a shit about him? He didn’t give a shit about me. He died somewhere far away from here a long time ago. He chose to go there.”
Junior, as he’s called, is a total asshole, the kind of kid who would blindly smear his placa across a memorial to Vietnam missing or captured Veterans. Guys like his father. Simon flies him back to that troop bay, just as the rear hatch opens onto the fury of battle. The boy stares into the faces of the men, of his father, leaning into the opening hatch. Véa, a Vietnam infantryman, writes with vivid memories of sight and sound and adrenaline.
“The heavy ramp began to yawn open, and the young troopers in the belly of the aircraft stood up. There was dread and stony resignation in their faces. The sortie didn’t feel right. The world didn’t make sense. This could be the end. There was a loud flurry of cracks and pops just meters from the Chinook. There were a hundred men outside firing their weapons. As the ramp slammed into the ground, the intensity and volume of the gunfire doubled, then tripled into a deafening roar.”
Vegas and Junior watch as Private Fulgencio Garza kisses a small photograph then rises from his seat. With the platoon jumping into the line of fire, tough guy Junior is paralyzed at the profound ignorance of his attitude, the global insignificance of his gangbanging for horse shit values. “They’re gonna stand up and walk out into that? asked Junior. His shattered voice box was emitting sounds of shock. This was no cowardly drive-by shooting. The gunfights in the streets back home in Port Arthur were kids’ games compared to this.” (304)
For pure unmitigated literary power, the next paragraphs will not be matched, where Junior watches the bullet spin out of the bush line, assume its trajectory and Junior screams for it to stop, but it doesn’t, not until it stops in a fine red mist. At that moment, Junior returns to his time and place, prepared for change, to talk to his mother, to open up, to be his father's son. Dad walked out into that.
Add The Mexican Flyboy to the "top of" war literature lists. It stands right next to greats like The Red Badge of Courage, Battle Cry, The Naked and the Dead, Daniel Cano's Shifting Loyalties, and Véa's own Gods Go Begging.
Communication occupies a curious yet important role in the novel. In many ways, the subject of the novel is communication, how people miscommunicate, how they seem bound to play around the edges of meaning and understanding, how they follow assumptions or wildly erroneous misunderstanding, or get played by outside forces.
There’s some profound work packed into The Mexican Flyboy, about communication. The novel drops interesting historical facts—Joan of Arc was found innocent at trial, for example--or bits of knowledge about terroir and fine wine, and lots of other rich detail. That Véa does profound with loud, distracting, often comic, events and incidents, the writing makes the novel so much fun that all that profundity and matter-of-fact knowledge might slip past notice the first time through. Give it a moment, let it sink in then look again. Look it up. Many readers will laugh thinking, “Ah ha! Good one, there, Véa, I didn’t see it the first time.”
More than anything, Alfredo Véa’s version of “what if you could go back in time?” is a speculative fiction gem that helps settle an ongoing controversy among literary critics: the loci among genre and mainstream and literary U.S. fiction. The Mexican Flyboy offers a literary tour de force that erases what boundaries remain. The novel follows a delighting structure, characters emerge from a glimpse in an early page to looming presence in the novel. Some you notice, others come in morsels of surprise. The blend of speculative with historical details tempts readers to look it up in the internet, with a big smile on one’s face, or a quizzical grimace. Reading it engages a reader’s imagination, curiosity, and delight.
I’d like those assholes who tagged the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall to read The Mexican Flyboy. I’d like them to write an essay on Junior’s epiphany for his parents and things which are good. I want those pendejos to think about waiting in the back of that helicopter ready to step into a firefight like the ones that put those names on the wall. Will it save them?