Rudolfo Anaya's new book is a brief, wandering, philosophically inclined and often humorous exploration of what it means to be oneself in a world that expects conformity—and how experience in the world changes one's inner and outer beings.
In Anaya's note to the reader at the end of the book, he explains that the genesis of the novel came from caring for his wife through her fatal illness, so it is no surprise that the novel deals with such large and universal topics as the meanings of life and death, and the transformation of the soul. Although Anaya makes good use of humor and interesting characters throughout, one can't help but feel that the novel is just too short to give the reader enough to chew on.
The novel begins with Randy Lopez returning to Agua Bendita, N.M., the town of his birth, after a long sojourn into the gringo world. Feeling lost and disconnected from both the town he left and the world he entered, Randy hopes to win Sofia, the woman he loved as a young man, and regain some sense of self. Unfortunately for Randy, no one in the town seems to remember him, but each person he encounters offers a story, suggestion or clue as to what his purpose may be, and how he can reach Sofia.
After Randy's arrival, the book becomes a series of vignettes wherein Randy meets increasingly strange people and encounters increasingly odd scenes. Along the way, Randy meets his old priest, the schoolteacher who gave him his gringo name, a couple of racist faux-cowboys, the devil, four coyotes dressed as men playing dominoes, and a great many more characters who both assist and mock Randy in his quest.
One of the more charming themes of the book is the cyclical and interconnected nature of life, art and history. Characters in the novel reference and are often referents of a multitude of mythological texts. The Bible is mentioned; there is much talk of Odysseus and his journey, as well as a healthy dose of the many varying stories and myths of the Southwest. At one point, the devil takes Randy to the town fiesta, where all are represented, including:
The seven vices. And the four horsemen of the apocalypse. La Llorona. Grendel. Tiresias the soothsayer. Greek heroes. Quixote and Sancho. Lady Godiva on her white horse. Hordes of the unfaithful dragging the trappings of their sins behind them. Generals and madmen who made war, all crippled by their own insanity. Scholars and fools. Some scholars making fools of themselves. Several frail figures with bleeding stigmata. None with five.
This raucous flexibility of mythology—this world where all the stories of all people return and coexist, waiting to be remembered and called upon once again—jibes well with the other main theme of the book, the idea of cycles and the continuous return of the soul after death.
Yet despite the parade of colorful characters, as well as some wise and humorous dialogue, the book feels incomplete, and many of the characters are not around long enough to feel fleshed out; instead, they are like mere paper cut-outs that function as flat mouthpieces for big ideas.
Take, for example, the character of Unica, a mystical wise woman who converses and teaches Randy constantly throughout the novel. Several times, she mentions "beauty" and "truth," and near the end of the novel, she tells Randy, "Sofia loves the young. ... They are her spring lambs. With wisdom in their hearts, they become lovers of beauty and truth." These sort of vague, overarching terms are mentioned many times in the novel, but they remain brief mentions without any sort of fresh insight into their larger or universal meanings.
Even Randy, whom the novel is ostensibly about, never feels fleshed out. His time among the gringos is alluded to many times, and he talks about the lessons he learned living among the gringos, but the novel would have been greatly helped if Anaya had taken the space to illuminate more of his main character's past and present, and inner and outer life.
Ultimately, the book is worth a read simply for Anaya's prowess at using and interweaving stories and mythology seamlessly into his own characters. But those expecting a fleshed-out novel with deeply constructed characters and narrative will most likely finish the book disappointed.