Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A dozen characters in search of a peculiar son

Review: Sergio Troncoso. A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant's Son. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2019. ISBN: 9781947627338

Michael Sedano

13 stories make up the two-hundred pages of Sergio Troncoso’s A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son. (link)It’s a book so compelling it easily consumes an afternoon in a single reading, then days re-reading, provoked into thoughts on material success, identification, sex, quotidian life, and story-telling.

Troncoso gives characters their own names and spaces, linking their stories to offer readers points of view the characters won’t know. There’s added enjoyment for readers when characters don’t recognize significant overlaps. Troncoso plays with that in one story, bringing strangers together with one degree of separation from a third, leaving readers on the edge of their seat, like running into your first lover in a random airport.

Despite different names, I read them all as the same character who left Ysleta, only they played out their lives in alternative futures. Each story is the imagined “what-if” yearnings of a fifty-something man surrounded by links to his past. I am David. I am Carlos. I am Galilea. I am Vendo Claridad. Reading these stories as if they all are the same person on parallel courses comes from a conversation Carlos has with his suegro.

Who knows what changes the human heart. Who knows if it changes at all. Maybe the objects around it simply change too, so the heart – in– the – world is only an older heart lost in a different world. The question then becomes: are we the same person as our younger selves, or a collection of different selves in new worlds, or something disquietly suspended between the past and the present?

Why shouldn’t raza hold Harvard degrees and work on Wall Street? Marry Jewish girls and seek out bad Mexican food in Manhattan? Follow your heart, if that’s what you want. The Peculiar Immigrant gives permission for that. In this sense, it’s a perpetual coming-of-age story because fitting into the establishmentarian world of Columbia professorial chairs or investment banking cubicles, exercise competencies that begin developing early in a lifetime.

It sets you apart. The dead father had told his son how loved the boy was but held him at a distance, “you are not like any of us.” He is “Joe, the different Mexican” of the poem “22 Miles,” but instead of high school rings their fingers have MBA class rings and if the work they do is stoop labor, it pays six figures and buys condos near the park.

Troncoso’s raza in monied or prestigious milieus hold their own with matter-of-fact social and professional competence, and save a repentant racist suegra, being a Chicano doesn’t overtly trouble these characters. Troncoso excavates that dreadful sense that lurks around the edges of social mobility, and saves it for the last story. Some call it “imposter syndrome” but for Troncoso’s character it’s a sense of being pursued by a wild beast in a trackless wilderness, or have no space of one's own.

The wild beast story closes the collection, introducing a new character after readers have come to terms with Paul, Galilea, Carlos, David, Sarah, Arturo, Melissa, Lori. Vendo Claridad, the final version of the peculiar son, waits until the end to raise the big issue of belonging. Given the dystopic setting of the closing two stories, the beast leaves readers with an uneasy gloom that remains unspoken, one's feelings for the collection not clear at all. In fact, the ambiguity of “Vendo” and its nearness to “vendido,” add to a reader’s unease in accounting the book’s closing words. Peculiarly provocative.

A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son reverberates with literary significance as Chicano Literature, and for a bunch of academic reasons, but it doesn’t have to. Readers don’t have to catch all this, instead just enjoy the way Troncoso tells a story or uses characters to flesh out peculiarities of the Harvard Chicano. 

Carlos acts a total asshole blithering on about how put out he is while between-the-lines his wife is busting her back to make a good life for this jerk. 

Another fellow, Julio, is a cameo at the velorio, then gets righteously murdered in a later tale.

Galilea will catch every reader’s interest, just for her and the cat’s name, but more so for her eroticism. She’s not particularly likeable as her story opens, especially when she has casual sex with that pendejo Carlos. Then, Gali’s husband Ben dies from a second bout of prostate cancer, leaving Galilea a million dollars. 

Empathy takes a roller-coaster ride in Galilea's and several stories, sometimes accompanied by humor. A character crashes and readers fear we’ve lost her. Nope, just the leg. Look for it, you’ll laugh out loud at the understatement.

Erotic writing calls attention to itself. Sex and lust occupy significant parts of youth, and old people remember passion with yearning, so these scenes are essential, though some obnoxious, others spicy. 

Troncoso delves into adultery from both a man’s and woman’s perspective, making his story devoid of moral dudgeon. Galilea likes to have fun and fulfills her own expectations. Mostly his characters betray out of pendejismo, but that’s neither here nor there. They just do it.

I don’t want to ignore Troncoso’s instructions on how to read and think about his book. Troncoso offers this, what seems reasoned and valuable, it’s an element of torture and assimilation into a dystopic republic of reading:

They asked for a nuanced view of each book, a viewpoint based on details about characters or scenes or writing style, or better questions and possibilities posed by the book to the reader, and in reality, all of the above. 

If anyone tells you Troncoso's book island dystopia is a bad grad school experience, they’re right.

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