Friday, June 24, 2016

The Mexican Flyboy: The Curse of Empathy

The Mexican Flyboy
Alfredo Véa
University of Oklahoma Press - June, 2016

There are days when the world erupts in a cloud of chaos and disaster. As though we are extras in the climactic scene of an apocalyptic movie, we find ourselves surrounded by violence, fear and terror.  In those times, it can be difficult if not impossible to resist the temptation to cringe, cover-up and hide in the comfort of our shelter, away from the slaughter of innocents, protected from assaults on our collective sensitivities, seeking immunity from images of our brothers, sisters, children and neighbors gunned down by a maniac with an easily-obtained high tech, efficient killing machine, or news reports of yet another desert village destroyed by orders from a dispassionate drone flying the stars and stripes.

Too often we are too numb to act.  More often, we feel powerless to change the dynamic. The name Orlando is added to the list of names that now mean mass murder and we know, uneasily, regretfully, that there will be more names for that list soon. 

Those who don't succumb to the horror and who struggle to overcome the forces of blood and destruction engage in a fight that looks like another peoples' movement doomed to fail.  Cynicism creeps into our marrow.  Hope slips away on a crimson stream of gore.  We blame the politicians, or the voters; we accuse the faithful, or the faithless; we turn on ourselves and see only haters.

Reminders about the history of violence confront the reader early on in Alfredo Véa's amazing novel, The Mexican Flyboy. Véa's story dramatically points out that we have never experienced a time when we did not inflict pain on one another.  We have never known complete peace.  We are more than capable of horrendous acts of pain and suffering.  We are our own worst enemies. What we endure now is simply more of the same.  Our past is not the past, our future is today.

The book can be seen as a kaleidoscopic mix of science fiction, speculative lit, history, physics, war novel, and redemptive tale. Or, basically as an Alfredo Véa novel. He takes the reader into gut-wrenching battle scenes, surrealistic prison dramas, detailed eyewitness accounts of some of the most famous events in history, and intimately deep into the tortured heart and soul of his main character, Simon Magus Vegas.

Vegas travels through time to the exact locations of some of humankind's most brutal mass atrocities:  the Cambodian killing fields; the massacre at Washita; the genocide at Bergen-Belsen. And more. Crimes against individuals also are recounted:  Joan of Arc burned at the stake though she was found innocent; Jesse Washington lynched in Waco; the murder of Emmett Till; the botched execution of Ethel Rosenberg for the crime of being a Jew married to a Jewish communist. And more. The killers come from every group, every religion, every political ideology.  The commonality is our species.

The notion of time travel may put off some readers who might mistakenly jump to the conclusion that The Mexican Flyboy cannot be taken seriously, either as literature or as important.  Ignore that conclusion and read this book.

Several passages will impact the reader with their sheer imaginative power:  a woman's fall from the sky that takes her through the pivotal scenes of her life; young soldiers preparing to jump from a helicopter into a crashing, shattering Vietnam War ambush; a philosophical, rabble-rousing rant on a prison radio directed to the prisoners' stultified self-awareness and shrunken consciences.

Vegas isn't a voyeur. His travels are much more than spectator events.  He takes action by swooping in to save those who are the answer to the question, "Who is more alone?" He doesn't change history but he stops the suffering. His weapons include comic books about magicians and artillery maps from World War II. Those he saves "retire" to Boca Raton, where they all wear Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.  Yes, there is humor in this book that uses death as one of its prime motifs.

Vegas might be insane.  At a minimum he struggles with PTSD.  He's described as "a lonely homeless person who happens to have many friends, a fine home, and a beautiful wife." (133).  His wife and friends worry about him.  He appears oblivious to their concerns.  He has his own troubled past, which has to be reconciled by the end of the novel. Several mysteries orbit Vegas's quest.  What is the secret of the skydiver who fell to her death in front of him when he was a child?  Why does the list of concentration camp victims include fifteen Mexican names?  What is his connection to the death-row prisoner who claims to know the "truth" about Simon?  How will the unsteady hero react to the birth of his daughter?  All these and more are explained and tied together by Véa, who uses his words as his own time machine to iron out the complexities and puzzles of his challenging tale.

Simon Vegas suffers from the curse of empathy; he feels too much, he shares the suffering, he truly is one with his fellow humans, and because of that he does what he can to help, no matter that others think it impossible or crazy or useless.  Vegas may have nothing more than the power of his own imagination, but with that power he attacks the darkness at the heart of humanity.  He lights a magnificent beacon of hope, and he overcomes the trap of time by connecting with everyone else, by finally accepting his own humanity.  The metaphor of time travel turns to the reality of love.  And the violence is stopped.


Manuel Ramos is the author of several novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction books and articles.  His collection of short stories, The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories, was a finalist for the 2016 Colorado Book AwardMy Bad: A Mile High Noir is scheduled for publication by Arte Público Press in September, 2016.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hope to read Flyboy, since Vea's written some powerful works I've loved. Given scenarios in this book, he, and readers, would find it worthwhile checking out Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell. It details and analyzes some catastrophes, disasters like Katrina, the Mexico City and San Francisco earthquakes, and others. She concludes that humanity's collective reaction to such are not as portrayed in Hollywood's apocalyptic movies. We are better than that, when todo se va a la ....