Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Sherlock Homie and Three Reflections

Review: Manuel Ramos. The Golden Havana Night. A sherlock Homie Adventure. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-55885-867-1

Michael Sedano

Manuel Ramos hasn’t finished his newest Gus Corral detective novel, despite its publication date of 30 September 2018. And that’s half the fun of The Golden Havana Night, A Sherlock Homie Adventure. When you get to the end, the story hangs there.

The other half, of course, is the reader’s reunion with Ramos’ replacement character for Luis Montéz. Despite the character’s insistence on showing up in a plot line, Montéz is done. Age has a way of putting ‘finis’ to lots of things. It’s a fact that doesn’t escape Gus, nor the author.

Corral himself is resilient and able to take a beating and keep on going like a drug store wristwatch. It’s Gus’ connections that are taking aging hard. In a subplot a retired corrupt cop brings justice to an old murder because old crimes don’t get punished so the old guy does it himself.

Corral’s long-time associate, Jerome, has come down with Parkinson’s Disease. Jerome’s symptoms worsen over the few pages we last see him, no longer an active participant in the narrative but as a third person report. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the diagnosis, but Jerome becomes a valetudinarian, inquiring after a person’s health can wear them down after a while. For Gus, it’s age and the beatings and car wrecks and shootings.

Stop the world of the novel. Ramos brings the plot to a curve in the road of Jerome’s life. There is a full page of health information on Parkinson’s Disease. The topic of how raza approach health communication differently is important to Jerome, to the reader. Jerome almost missed useful therapies and knowledge. It’s not an author’s complaint, but a solution, “I had to dig into the Internet to make that connection. But once I did, it was all there. Class schedules, fees. Todo. Everything I needed to know.”
“Maybe you should spread the word.”
“Maybe. I’ll think about that.”

Old-time Chicano talk clues Gus to danger. Not that his alertness does him any good. The woman calling him “homie” and “ése” has Gus captive and nearly smashes his flesh con un martillazo. She was supposed to be an embassy operative, and that lo-tech torture instrument is a sly reference to the chic-old cars of Cuban local color.

Island complexities are familiar tropes from other novels and Ramos merely acknowledges the material benefits social advantage brings. If that disparity is what a reader seeks, Ramos’ title recommends further reading. Cuban detective author Leonardo Padura penned a superb “color” series, including Havana Gold. Ramos, like Padura, acknowledges the fact of disparity and moves on to tell his story.

Manuel Ramos is the “godfather of Chicano noir,” an honorific reflecting not only his longevity but a reader’s expectation for something more, beyond the “average” Manuel Ramos Chicano detective story. Golden Havana Night fulfills that in its explorations of identity and identification. If anything makes a novel “chicano, chicana,” it’s the theme of Identification.

Gus Corral is naturally inclined to question his place, his identity. A pinto has a tough time from the word “you’re released.” This struggle is the texture of the novel’s unspoken world. Throwing him into Cuba where parallel identity issues add to “it’s complicated,” with Island Cubans, exile Cubans, gusanos, revolucionarios, mirror issues back in Denver.

The weak brother who disavows his Cubanness, the ultimate subversion of identity, turns out to be a crook of near-fraticidal dimension. Maybe that’s because he is the worst kind of gusano. Back in Denver, Gus’ sister risks her movimiento credibility by reaching across social barriers to embrace a broken-down anglo ex-cop. Do real Chicana heroes do that?

There are amusing bits with Chicano speech readers should look out for. The two torturers who adopt old-style phrasing, a group of workers whose knowledge of Chicanos includes a few phrases but not how a Chicano says au revoir:

“The workers exuberantly wished us a good trip. When I shouted, “ay te watcho,” they looked at me like I’d spent ten minutes too long in the Cuban sun. I’d taken the Chicano thing as far as it could go on the road the Bay of Pigs”.

When those workers read this novel, they’ll also learn about Carlos Frésquez, a Chicano artist working at the Latinx fringes of la cultura. And there's a fleeting reference to an "Hispanic" philosophical outlook Chicanos and Cubans share.

Ramos’ metaphoric reflections on who and how we see one another, through language, through health communication, through aging, make interesting divagations from the crime and travel literature mission of the novel, but add immeasurably to the storytelling essential to the detective novel. The Golden Havana Night has everything a reader looks for. Except an ending. And that’s what, when all gets said and the last page done, makes this Sherlock Homie novel a real kick in the head.

Memories Are Made at Harry's Plaza
Michael Sedano

December 1968. The Selective Service allowed me to wrap up the teaching year, giving me until mid-January to report to the Army.

I could live with that, so as the year wraps up I busily conduct the business of being the Debate TA. Teaching speech and covering at no extra pay for a professor who’d fallen ill, I was having the time of my life, knowing all this was ending, this was it.

Getting that letter marks me. I walk the hallways to whispered glances, “He’s the one who got drafted." “Drafted” is a euphemism in these days for getting killed in Vietnam. 

I go about the business of visiting professors to say so long, it’s been good to know you. My Greek teacher slams his fist on his desk and screams, “God Damn It, they always take the good ones!” My M.A. adviser is glum, advises me to “go into krypto.”

My debate partner invites me to dinner at Harry’s Plaza. He’ll drive. We're getting the full treatment, could be the last time we dine together.

Harry’s Plaza means stylish elegance. Red leather banquettes in darkened interior, walls covered with period photographs and celebrity head shots. Red-waistcoated waiter seats you comfortably setting down a crock of red tomato relish another of sour cream, with warm Italian bread and crispy breadsticks. Pork chops or ground sirloin steak are affordable now and again, but penurious students love spaghetti and meat balls with garlic bread. Not like Mom’s Italian Village garlic bread--the world’s best—on the other side of Santa Barbara, but good garlic bread, one refill.

We walk into Harry’s Plaza and my debate partner leads my wife and me like he owns the place, past the maître through the saloon and into the back room. The entire Speech Department of UCSB, the baby debaters, the speech majors I didn’t know but came anyhow, the student-clerks, Flo Sears, the venerable Secretary. The professors make speeches. The room gives me an actual cheer, standing, hip hip hooray! 

They hated the war. They didn’t say it, but they were thinking it, "what if this is the last time we see this guy alive?

So last week I had lunch at Harry’s Plaza. I ordered a steak because I can. 

Spaghetti’s on Special with meatballs for eleven dollars. I can’t eat wheat. 

My steak comes with a mound of steamed broccoli and cauliflower instead of spaghetti and bread. I eat all of it. 

I bask in the ambiente of times past, looking around the room, loud people at the bar fully present, quiet diners enjoying privacy's darkness, a festive party over there getting engaged. 

That some things never change, and that Harry's Plaza is one of them, brings me immeasurable comfort in the moment. 

I don’t tell anyone why I’m here, how I have never forgotten that farewell party, and how my memory of it means the world to me. 

Stop Reading And Fight

Michael Sedano

Overnight Duty, Mae Bong, Korea, 1969

You see, that’s the thing about accents. Everyone has an accent and where I come from the first marker of Foe from Friend is that accent behind me in the chow line. And this boy’s mouth is full of twang.

“Who the fuck do you think you are? Every time I see you, you have your face in a book.”

That’s true, the book part. I don’t know about “every time” because being the new guy, I don’t know anyone. I turn to look.

The Admin Area of Bravo Battery Seven Five sits at the bottom of the highest Army missile site in the world. Fifteen miles from the Korean DMZ, mile-high Mae Bong houses surface-to-air missiles waiting for the fifty men up there to connect cables, take cover, and be blown to small pieces by radar-seeking missiles. The twenty-five guys down here would hold the narrow pass until help arrives.

Short, stocky Metzgar, a Private E-2, stands red-faced and making fists. He wears his curly blond hair combed into a motorhead wave like Robert Mitchum running white lightning. A good ol’ boy, Metzgar.

Metzgar is what I grew up calling “Okies.” They called themselves poor white trash. This Okie has me in his sights, all worked up, and I go “Oh crap.”

I know the rules. I’m supposed to say something. He’ll be offended so he gets to punch me, then we fist fight.

I’d accommodate him, if I had a reason. But reading a book? I’m still the new guy, and kicking this guy’s ass—or getting mine kicked which I doubted—didn’t strike me as a good way to begin a year surrounded by a shitload of white southern accents.

“Where are you from, Metzgar?” Soldiers wear our names on our clothes. I like his answer. The guy is from Kentucky. I’m reading Faulkner, The Reivers. Faulkner’s from Mississippi and the story is heading to Tennessee.

“Huh?” Metzgar is dumbfounded, a good word for the daily Metzgar, who is about to become my friend. People like Metzgar aren’t dumb. This guy took a moment to squint and figure out what I was saying about being here at Bravo, nine thousand miles from anyone you know, and being somewhere else at the same time.

This book is about going to Memphis. You know Memphis? Metzgar doesn’t know Faulkner. I tell him he’s one of the most famous writers in the world. I call to mind a Eudora Welty story. Metzgar has dived into cold, green rivers like in the story.

We chow together. He doesn’t want to fight anymore and he agrees to join me in the USO library where it’s as if a buyer walked fiction and poetry shelves at City Lights Bookstore and put the books here at Bravo. I pick a Mickey Spillane story. Metzgar never did read it, but it had a place in his locker, the only book Metzgar ever owned. Poor kid.

Andrea Mauk Reflects
The Night We Parked Too Far from the Fair (and Nothing Happened)
By Andrea Garcia Mauk

At the time of the harvest moon,
when night’s cold air stubbed out summer’s heat,
when a schoolgirl’s year still rang with newness,
we went to the state fair,
Mary Janes on our feet and trench coats
round our shoulders.
The parking lot was full, so we did what our
parents told us not to do:
parked my friend’s dad’s car
on a side street, very far.

The blur of caramel apples and funhouse mirrors,
tossing coins for stuffed animals never won,
carnies hawking voices tempting, “Just once more try.”
Riding the roller coaster and the Tilt-a whirl,
until it turned colder, and the five of us
knew, we had to walk back to the car.

We met four boys, one in a letter jacket,
last name proudly embroidered on the back,
and David, who kept looking at me,
while I turned my gaze down.
They offered us a ride,
so we piled in on their laps,
And quickly, we were
back at my friend’s dad’s car
parked on the side street, very far.

It could have ended there
but my friend reached under the seat
and pulled out an object…shiny and metal.
Three girls in the front seat bolted,
and my friend in the back wriggled out of her coat,
to an ingenious escape,
but I felt barrels, one at each temple,
and I wanted to cry, eyes blind with fear,
as I heard my friend’s tires squeal away.
I was always too slow.

The guy riding shotgun,
(I now know why it’s called that,)
Said, “Look at the bum on the corner.”
BANG! I watched him fall.
“No!” I shrieked. As their laughter ricocheted,
I began bargaining
with God.

“I’m sorry I didn’t read the entire
To Kill a Mockingbird for class. I won’t lie again. I…
I want to be an actress, go to college,
get married, have a family,
hear the bells at Saint Catherine’s
on Sunday morning, go home to my mom
and my dog.
What will my dog do without me?
Please, don’t let me die. They can have me,
they can rape me, then I’ll be good
for nothing, but don’t let me die…
not before I’ve lived.”

The harvest moon was my flashlight,
honed on the driver. “Your mom’s name is Jenny.
She works at the high school.”
The driver stiffened, then David insisted,
“Don’t do this to her. Take me to my dad’s house.
I’ll borrow the car and take her home.”

Along the outskirts, on Baseline, David pulled over.
“My friends made me promise…”
I told myself to do the math.
One is better than four.
He ripped at my shirt. I took the razor
blade that I carried
from my pocket and wondered
where to cut and how hard
so that he wouldn’t chase me.
He unzipped his pants, he
yanked my head back, and then…
he let go. “I don’t want to do this.
Promise you won’t tell.”

“I won’t tell. I won’t tell.”

In the morning, the phone rang apologetically.
My friend asked my mom, “Did she get home?”
“She did, no thanks to you.”
In the background, my mom heard their voices
Saying, “She’s so lucky. Nothing happened.”

1 comment:

Antonio SolisGomez said...

i liked your story em, nice way to difuse a hostile :)