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A Cuban WASP Looks Homeward : HOME AGAIN by Jose Yglesias (Arbor House: $15.95; 180 pp.)

September 27, 1987|Elena Brunet | Brunet, who translated Manuel Puig's "Pubis Angelical" (Aventura/Random House), often writes for The Book Review. and

After his wife dies, Pinpin, a Cuban-American novelist now in his 60s, decides to leave New York City and return to Tampa, Fla. "Home Again" by Jose Yglesias is a story of the first 24 hours of this eventful homecoming, of Pinpin's reacquaintance with his Cuban relatives and heritage and the rediscovery of his powers as a writer.

When the novel begins, Pinpin writes, "I am at the end of my tether. . . . My hometown--gone. My books--out of print. Two sons--neither looks like me nor thinks like me." Feeling failed as a writer, he has given up on life and concluded equally that life has given up on him. Thus he is shocked to find the phone already ringing for him as he opens the door to the empty old house where he grew up: It's his cousin Tom-tom, who insists on showing him some Latin hospitality.

With Tom-tom playing chauffeur, a series of haphazard and somewhat picaresque adventures begins. But Pinpin feels a stranger not only to his cousin but also to what he considers his cousin's very Cubanness. "I am practically a WASP now. All this Latin touching and importuning makes me nervous." The first stop is at Tom-tom's house for dinner. " 'Aiee!' . . . two strange old ladies (Pinpin's cousins) shrieked the moment Tom-tom opened the screen door . . . . I brought up an arm to ward off their attack. . . . Deep wrinkles, blue-green mascara, painted eyebrows; agitated shrunken flesh on toothpick flailing arms. . . ." All very different from the cultural anonymity of Pinpin's New York years.

After dinner, and despite Pinpin's protests, Tom-tom takes him on a seemingly madcap tour of the new Tampa. Only later, deep into the night, does Tom-tom reveal his true agenda: His retarded granddaughter, Dulcie, is being turned out as a prostitute by her pimp husband, a Marielito (a Cuban emigrant in the 1980 Mariel boat lift), and Tom-tom is desperate to rescue her. Only through this urgent family crisis does Pinpin emerge from his self-absorbed, world-weary misery and, in so doing, he rediscovers his fictional voice.

For the story told in "Home Again" is not only that of Pinpin's return but also the story of how the novel itself came to be written. Pinpin comes to Tampa convinced his writing days are over. "God, it is great to speak straight out, bing-bang, and not worry about plots and stratagems to keep the reader turning the pages. No more fiction, no more New Journalism. I'm an ex-writer." But in the course of this bizarre pursuit of Dulcie through the seedy sections of Tampa, vital memories of Pinpin's childhood and his marriage to Cora, his Boston Brahmin wife--who, like himself, was a Communist--are reawakened within him, and with them his voice as a writer. And in the end, the novel is written.

Ultimately Pinpin and Tom-tom find the damaged Dulcie in a trailer where she's being sold by her husband, Tambor, and a violent confrontation ensues. During the struggle, Pinpin suffers a heart attack and collapses. In a brilliant comic epiphany, he imagines that it's his wife's face bending down to kiss him ("Know that I love you, Cora," he says) and not that of the anxious Tom-tom, who's performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation. This expedition, while almost killing Pinpin, at the same time renews his desire to live.

Interspersing the narrative with entertaining caricatures of Cuban as well as WASP personalities and manners, author Yglesias--a playwright, journalist and novelist who himself grew up in Tampa--has written a remarkable novel.

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