Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Review: Deep South No Place For An Artist As A Young Man

Review: Jimmy Santiago Baca. America Orphan. Houston: Arte Publico, 2021. ISBN: 

Michael Sedano



You have to read American Orphan’s first chapters with a bit of astonishment, and more than that, of uncertainty. You’re not certain where this character is heading, and as you read along, you’re more uncertain who this novel is written for, some kid in lock-up, or a general reader?


Part of that uncertainty comes of the astonishing sexual element—this isn’t for kids like incarcerated youth.Then again, American Orphan’s autobiographical voice makes this disturbing story useful to a desperate kid looking for familiar patterns in the fictional world that "size up" one's own world, and what worked for one guy who’d gotten himself into deep shit. For that reader, American Orphan is "literature as equipment for living."


Busted and locked up at 15 for smuggling weed, Orlando Lucero hits the streets in 1980 at twenty-two, seven years since he walked free. He seeks out his junkie brother before heading east to shack up with a woman pen pal. Disaster, but his carnal is his carnal no matter how irresponsible and lost. The vato never gets straight. So it goes.


Orlando’s a 22-year old virgin with a febrile imagination. His woman mentor-pen pal is eager to allow him to explore all his puerile sexual fantasies, promises he’d made in his prison love letters. She reads a few hot paragraphs and hands him a whip.


I’m ready for American Orphan to end abruptly with the vomiting ingenue fleeing into the North Carolina woods. Orlando returns to Lila. He's a damned fool and trapped at her chante as the season unfold.

Lila’s a multilingual do-gooder who holds Orlando in place with philosophical discussion, writing mentoring, sex with and without the beatings. This isn’t porn though Baca feeds the younger reader titillation. Mostly, Orlando and Lila’s world is totally bizarre.


Lila’s taken up with Orlando, leaving a good ol’ boy criminal kingpin. The broken-hearted boss feels protective toward Lila and sends enforcers to beat the crap out of Orlando. That doesn’t make the kid cut loose. Frog King hires Orlando to truck marijuana from Texas to South Carolina.


I keep reading and keep saying “this pendejo is going to stop when he gets busted.” Orlando is such a big pendejo he keeps telling himself he wants out, but he finds excuse after excuse to pick up the next load, to grow his trade.


Waiting in Padre Island for word, beating on himself about getting out, Orlando reminds you he’s a fictional Jimmy Baca, going into lyrical reverie, “My eyes in the gray water with a melancholy regret that I am not back at Green Mill looking for a job or applying for night school. I tell myself the time will come.” Baca frequently reminds a reader that stories are made up of arresting anecdotes, well paced, and always deserve a good telling.


While Orlando is waxing lyrical, his smuggler buddy has been slashing some hapless man’s throat in a park bathroom. Orlando says nothing but wonders, “What’s wrong with you?” Orlando knows what’s wrong with himself, money and how he gets it. “Is it my excuse or my justification? I am not sure anymore.” 


Baca’s careful not to glamorize the druggie world he’s created for his incarcerated youth reader. The bizzare world of big-time drug smuggling comes across as dirty and treacherous and strictly about money. Orlando, ever the moral criminal, wants readers to think beyond the money, even though this sounds like pinto bullshit:


“Smuggling masks my inefficiencies, balances the playing field between me having and not having something, conceals my inadequacies and reveals my skill, because, to tell the truth, although I am not really able to face the lousy mess my life is, I am, I hope, slowly repairing it. It doesn’t matter that the means in question are illegal. It is what I have. …I am I am certain of one thing, though: I instinctively know, if I ever open those old doors of my past, to the shack hidden in the woods, the scream that will ensue from that child will leave me a broken man.”


Descend into Orlando’s abyss. Baca opens the door behind the self-justification.


Sex abuse in the orphanage twists children like Orlando. The Orlando we meet on page one, who calls himself Ghost Boy, who stood so nobly, so tough in the Denver Youth lockup, arrived at DYA like that. Gladiator School didn’t make him that warrior. The Church did it.


From his little boy years until thirteen, Orlando was sexually abused by the Catholic Priests and Nuns in his orphanage. Ghost Boy, and kids like that boy, understand what a writer like Baca articulates, perhaps for the only time hear an inner urgency expressed:


“No needle in the arm, no amount of heroin or Oxy or cocaine or weed or whiskey can numb the pain.”


So what saves a life like Orlando? Poetry saves Orlando’s life. Writing saves Orlando’s life. And a loving woman, a Chingona who has her own mistakes fixed.


Bit by bit, another of Orlando’s mentors, an established poet, lures the poet Orlando into the world of performing and pocketing honoraria, gifts him seeing his name in print. The most valuable event in reforming Orlando comes through expression.


Don’t be Ghost Boy, tough and hold it back. Write. Talk. Open up. Ironically, the most persuasive written voice that frees him is not Orlando’s, but Lila’s. Lila soothes troubled Orlando to open up in a profoundly intimate conversation. She writes his story into a lawsuit against the Catholic Church and naming the priest who raped Ghost Boy so many times. The detail reads painfully, but reading it sets free the trapped spirit of the writer.


Maybe at this point fiction crosses into biography, or the other way. Maybe this book has been creative non-fiction all along. As it wraps, Orlando and his wife and kids living happily in el Bosque of Alburquerque experience a house fire. Orlando’s papers and writings and thoughts and history get burned. He rushed into the fire and saves his family photographs instead of his papers. It's a conscious act.


American Orphan is Orlando’s recreating his lifetime’s works that went up in smoke.

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