More 'Want' Wanted

Daniel Olivas' slim novel falls just short of greatness

The grandson of Mexican immigrants and a hard-core downtown Los Angeleno, Daniel Olivas toils as a lawyer by day, and endeavors as a writer by night.

He's not a canny academic hoping to secure tenure by penning tales about the invisible lives of people pushed to society's margins. Still, Olivas is part of an elite, boutique world of publishing, having edited and appeared in landmark anthologies like Latinos in Lotusland and Sudden Fiction Latino. In other words, he has (forgive the pun) real skin in the ethnic-lit game.

Multicultural literature is a niche genre, appealing to academics and others hungry for something—let's be frank—refreshingly nonwhite in its ethnic construction. That's OK, as long as one's palate doesn't decline into strict fetish. There are many liberals who, though by no means experts in Latino lit, remain eager for more stories about strong families in the United States finding their way amidst a landscape rife with—as a press release for Olivas' debut novel, The Book of Want, puts it—"religion, love, magic and death."

The Book of Want satisfies on every one of these levels. Sure, I struggled a bit with the first chapter's opening paragraphs, in which Conchita, 62, reminisces about her mother's incredible tamales and how they can never be replicated. (It's not very original to suggest the culinary skills of previous generations are unsurpassable.) Once the narrative gets underway, though, Olivas achieves liftoff—in much the same way Conchita's neighbor, widower Moisés Rojo, hovers off the ground while meditating in his yard. She is smitten and hypnotized. ("Conchita watched Mr. Rojo for two hours. She stood, naked and bathed in moonlight, loving this man who could defy gravity.")

Indeed, while Olivas successfully weaves this horny senior into a larger tapestry of L.A. stories and family characters, Conchita really stands out, demanding a novel of her own. I don't think I'm the only reader who noticed that her longings—culinary, sexual and otherwise—are really what Want wants to explore. It's not that Olivas' other characters are dull; it's just that the secrets they keep from each other seem ripped from a highbrow telenovela. Conchita's sister Julieta, and Julieta's husband, Manuel, are each engaged in adulterous relationships that threaten to rip their family apart, while their twin sons, Mateo and Rolando, are enrolled in college and are in search of their grown-up selves. The latter is dealing with his as-yet-undisclosed homosexuality, and how it might unsettle the family. Internal conflicts abound, and Olivas is sensitive toward them all.

There are postmodern flourishes, too, with sections near the novel's end reading like interviews with individual characters, and a stage play involving several different characters. There is also "How to Date a Flying Mexican," a chapter that cleverly chronicles Conchita's newfound romance in terms of relationship guidelines. ("Rule 1: Don't Tell Anyone About the Flying Part.") One course of action for dating a flying Mexican apparently advises learning to fly yourself: "Conchita and Moisés made a compact. If she taught him the secret of her delicious coffee, he'd teach her how to meditate. Moisés quickly mastered Conchita's brewing techniques. However, introducing Conchita to the art of meditation was an entirely different affair. Oh, she easily became skilled at sitting in the lotus position due in large part to her great flexibility, which also made her a delight in bed."

At times, the hyper-cuteness of such moments suggests a Latino update of The Golden Girls. But Olivas never allows the interaction to devolve into pure saccharine. He accomplishes this courtesy of a device: the ghost of Conchita's mother, Belén, a tough abuela who haunts and hovers at the perimeter of each of the 10 chapters. (These are essentially interlocking short stories with recurring characters published in varied forums.) Belén doesn't get the last word, but she gets the first, setting up the notion that family is what we make of it.

That idea is driven home by the book's powerful stage-play epilogue, as Conchita and Moisés lie in bed together, her dog barking his head off somewhere. They talk meanderingly about ... well, nothing, really. He wants to buy a Maserati. She wants to make love again. Only she gets her way for now. Although the stage directions gradually reveal and summarize the fate of these late-in-life lovers, I can't help but feel that Olivas should—and one day will—tell a complete, compelling and magical story of Conchita and her all-too-human desires.

In sum, I want more Want.

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