Thursday, December 9, 2004

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

dude, you didn't even mention Trompo loco!!! Come on man...... that was the best character.

The book wasn't as bad as Bodega dreams. this book still could have just stuck to several characters and fully developed them. Instead he just touch on a few and gave you the outside of them. Some of the stories were thrown in just to take up space.
It wasn't a bad read but he could have done; or maybe has to learn ; to do much better.

Oh, that whole shit with Maritza was overextended the plot. If it was just Julio trying to get out from unfer eddies finger; then it would have been cool.

Strike two