Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Review: Houston, We Have a Problema

Michael Sedano

Gwendolyn Zepeda. NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2009.
ISBN: 9780446698528

Any time I read a novel about singlehood and all that implies about sex, romance, youth, careers, I am glad to be old and out of all that. What a harrowing experience to be a 26-year old single woman making exceedingly bad decisions about virtually everything that comes her way.

But then, a woman reader might take the story in a different light than a retired man. In fact, I'd recommend Houston, We Have a Problema to single men just because of that difference in perspective.

Meet Jessica Luna, men. She's easy and hot to trot. All you need is a good line and a sexy body and Jessica is in your bed on the first date. Actually, it's not even a date when Jessica falls into Guillermo's bed. Guillermo has a few things going for him. He's a painter, Jessica's an Art History major with a knack for web design. She's filled with frustration in a dead-end clerical job in the insurance business. And, although Jessica doesn't recognize the resemblance, in many ways Guillermo is a clone of her father, in the worst ways.

Meet Jessica Luna, women. Confused about her ethnicity, loves her tacos, struggles with a body image problema, resents her mother's and older sister's meddling, and finds herself attracted to bad men because, as Cindy Lauper put it once, girls just want to have fun.

Gwendolyn Zepeda plays Jessica like Shakespeare's flies to wanton boys, torturing Jessica for sport. But makes a point when the chips are down. When sister sets up a cute meet with a successful executive, Jessica falls right into the trap, but with comedic results. Jonathan has all the tools that lure Jessica--car, money, connections--but he's traditional and reluctant to take the first step. Fearing rejection by someone with her looks and allure, Jonathan doesn't recognize that Jessica has the hots for him. When she gets him into her apartment and they begin to undress, his cat allergy acts up and he flees from her grasp.

Jessica's parents have been married too long without talking, just playing their roles. Papi takes his wife for granted. La Señora feels unappreciated and resents her husband's indifference. Thirty years of marriage begin to unravel and the sisters watch helplessly, the older daughter taking the mother's side, her father's little girl sticking with Papi.

Zepeda deftly brings the conflicts up as a slap in the face to Jessica who begins to see her father's racism against whites in her own push-pull attraction to Jonathan, a bolillo like her sister's husband and friends. "You're such a cocoanut" Jessica tells her sister. The Mexicano artist, Guillermo, takes Jessica for granted just as Papi does Mami. The artist neglects Jessica for weeks on end, doesn't call until he wants sex, then resumes the pattern of indifference. When Jessica realizes how history is repeating itself, she liberates herself from the mess and becomes, finally, her own person.

There's only one oddity about the ethnicity schism that adds some life to the story, the single instance of the word "Chicano" in the text. Zepeda scatters the "Latin" label here and there--no "Hispanics" in Houston. Jessica tells a confidante, "that's how it is when you date Latinos. Dramatic. Spicy. Exciting." Jessica's childhood friend is a gay guy who takes her clubbing. Describing the dance floor, Jessica observes the shitkicker outfits on the men, and women dancing with women, then specifically notes "Young Chicanos in the latest fashions spun and shimmied on tabletops." Is that a Texas thing?

Houston, We Have a Problema is neither complicated nor earth-shaking as a novel. Readers who enjoy the sucias novels will find this one agreeable. Still, there's plenty here for a male reader wound up in dating angst to buck up, take courage, and glean a soupçon of understanding that will reduce that looming fear of women and rivals. Anyone can simply allow Zepeda to lead you along to the mostly happy ending and a few hours' diverting reading. The extensive book club material at the end might be useful to see the novel as more than a mere confection.

Not mierda, character!

In his Monday post, Daniel Olivas has a character declare a certain Frida Kahlo work a piece of shit. Now, I know, it's only fiction, but I cannot allow such a remark to go unchallenged, for two reasons. Three. First, I like the original, "Las Dos Fridas" that Daniel's character so chacun a son gouted the joy out of. Second and third, I own a couple of derivative pieces. First, is Alfredo de Batuc's pastische created for Dia De Los Muertos 1981 and printed at Self Help Graphics. It's a beautiful work featuring Los Angeles icons the Watts Towers, City Hall, and the Hollywood sign / Griffith Park Observatory dome, perhaps on fire. Second, is Artemio Rodriguez' hommage quoting the piece itself, done as a lino cut and printed at the artist's now-closed La Mano Press. Both images are © the respective artists.

Daniel, that vato doesn't deserve Juana, whoever she may be. Here's to a nice halibut dinner for him, too.

One to Watch in 2009

It's grand seeing big city newspapers recognizing literature and art, even as many folks bemoan the diminution of space devoted to art and literature. La Bloga friend Gregg Barrios has been included in the San Antonio Express-News' people to watch in 2009, along with eight other artists and writers.

Of Gregg, the website observes,

If all goes according to plan, playwright Gregg Barrios is poised for a busy year in '09.

Part of it is overflow from '08, when his play "Rancho Pancho" generated some big buzz. The piece, which delves into the little-known relationship between Tennessee Williams and Texan Pancho Rodriguez, received an enthusiastic reception when the San Antonio-based Classic Theatre performed it at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival in September. A New Jersey publisher put out a souvenir edition of the script as part of the festival, and, Barrios said, the company has plans to put out an edition in February that will be available at bookstores and online. It will include a piece Barrios wrote for the Texas Observer about his research for the play, as well as an introduction.

The full story on Gregg Barrios and the "Nine to Watch in 2009" is at http://www.mysanantonio.com/sacultura/Arts__Entertainment_151_Nine_for_09.html. My apologies to the others if you're La Bloga friends and I don't know that.

Happy New Year, gente! My gosh, here is the first Tuesday of 2009. Looking forward to a year of good reading, great fun, and your comments. To leave a comment, click on the counter below and share your views.

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1 comment:

Daniel A. Olivas said...

I love Frida Kahlo and I love "Los Dos Fridas"...so, yes, my fictional character's views are purely his own and are meant to be symbolic of several things which I will leave to my readers. In my upcoming poetry collection, "Crossing the Border," I include what amounts to a love poem to Frida. One of my favorite memories of our last trip to Mexico was standing in front of the original "Los Dos Fridas." Anyway, fiction is fiction which I know you acknowledge (but I sense some doubt).