Day of the Dead, a Romance by Erik Orrantia

cover DayoftheDeadA Review by Piet Bach

The man who gave us Normal Miguel, The Equinox Convergence, and Taxi Rojo, has found a way to surprise yet again with his latest novel, Day of the Dead.  Erik Orrantia’s background in psychology and his delicate, precise language combined in each of his earlier works to show us the internal lives of his characters along with the externals of the worlds they live in.  And in every one of them he also provided us with secondary characters and plots that were interesting and different from what we would expect, handled with care and a keen appreciation of the weight each dramatic arc should have for the book to succeed in telling both stories.

In the current work, the main characters are bi-national and bi-cultural, Joe from San Francisco and Arturo from Guanajuato, where they meet and fall in love.  Their story is told in alternating chapters from each side of the veil that divides the living from the dead, and while this may sound forced it actually works beautifully because of Orrantia’s skillful handling of their individual voices.  The problems they face when Arturo follows Joe to San Francisco, the solution Joe finds in cashing out his life savings and opening a restaurant where they can work together, and the precipitating crisis when Arturo’s mother becomes seriously ill and he must return to Mexico, are realistic and absorbing.  A powerful second plot featuring Chava, a young man from Fresno who comes to San Francisco to escape the sordidness of his family and surroundings, gives us the chance to see the two main players as they mature into mentors and successful businessmen, and gives Joe a focus for his frustrations as he tries to teach the youngster with the flash-point machismo hidden behind a stereotypically chola femininity how to navigate the world of adult responsibility.  A sketchier third plot involving a regular customer who works as a telephone counselor weaves in during the latter chapters to bring Joe to his balance point.

The alternating voices of Joe and Arturo are handled beautifully.  As the book moves toward Arturo’s final scenes, his voice roughens just enough to make us think he’s actually in the room, but the spare precision in Orrantia’s account of his final day is dramatically stunning.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as a polemic about immigration politics or xenophobia or the essential unfairness of American marriage law, but one of the beauties of it is that although these are simmering throughout the story they remain on a back burner, not splashed into a bowl and set in front of the reader with a slopping thud.  We’re permitted to draw what lessons we can, or those we want to be open to, without having them forced into our consciousness.  Orrantia gives us fully conceived characters, allows us to follow them through lives that seem more real because they include the mundane, and finally gives us a note of hope, like Grahame’s piper at the dawn, to close the book.

I’ve deliberately not described individual scenes or the story in much detail.  Hashing and parsing and scrutinizing a book of this quality and complexity is disrespectful and essentially useless.  Erik Orrantia is not a particularly prolific writer but it’s always a pleasure to get a new book from him.  His insight into both American and Mexican culture shines in every story, his characters are drawn with care and discretion, and his plots move forward with the feral inevitability of a Lorca play.  Please do yourself a favor:  go here to buy it for yourself.  (As a side note, Dreamspinner Press books are beautifully produced, high quality trade paperbacks, and those I’ve bought have held up very well to a fair amount of abuse.)

Day of the Dead, by Erik Orrantia
206 pp., Dreamspinner Press, 2012
ISBN 13: 978-1-62380-116-8  paperback, $14.99
ISBN 13: 978-1-62380-117-5  e-book, $6.99

©2013 Pieter Bach

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