There is something simultaneously appealing and frustrating about Ernesto Quiñonez's second novel, Chango's Fire, a marked improvement over his highly-flawed debut, Bodega Dreams, but in the end, still something of a disappointment. This time, the problem lies in his biting off more than he can chew with too many subplots rolling around what is essentially one man's coming-of-age story at its heart.
He's inexplicably combined the systematic burning of Spanish Harlem, insurance fraud, organized crime, gentrification, Santeria, pseudo-socialism, illegal citizenship papers, a shady government agent and a few other random nuggets into a muddle-headed plot that rests precariously, and unsuccessfully, on a straight-out-of-Hollywood interracial romance...and frankly, he's just not up to the task. When the cliches aren't jumping off the page at the reader, the heavy-handed didacticism is smacking them in the face.
His protagonist, Julio Santana, is a philosophizing arsonist yearning for the old days while trying to turn his life around after the proverbial "last job." Almost every other character is either an archetype or a stereotype, none ever fully coming to life beyond the "issue" Quiñonez has chosen them to represent. After some hit-or-miss character and plot 'development' in the first two-thirds of the book, the hasty climax gets sloppy and, just like in Bodega Dreams, includes an out-of-left-field occurrence to wrap things up. The too-convenient epilogue only makes matters worse.
That said, Quiñonez is no hack and with a less ambitious plot that focused more on the characters he obviously had a connection to, especially the engaging babalawo Papelito, he could have had something really special here. Personally, I could see a viable sequel springing from this effort, focusing only on Julio's journey to his Asiento, his strained relationship with his parents and a fleshed-out romance with Helen and the issues that arise from it. The first two things represent the strongest aspects of Chango's Fire, while the latter's potential got buried in melodrama.