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Last Stop for Dreamers : MILE ZERO by Thomas Sanchez (Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 334 pp.)

September 17, 1989|Alejandro Morales | Morales' most recent novel is "The Brick People" (Arte Publico Press)

Thomas Sanchez spent his youth in Northern California where he began "Rabbit Boss," a highly praised first novel chronicling four generations of an Indian tribe in the California Sierra Nevada. He later explored Chicano history while living in Southern California, where he discovered the theme for his second novel, "Zootsuit Murders." After a four year hiatus from writing fiction, Sanchez went to the Caribbean, where he discovered Key West, an island smaller than the Miami Airport, lying 90 miles off the coast of Cuba. There, several events--the Space Shuttle launchings at nearby Cape Canaveral, a boatload of Haitians fleeing Baby Doc, and the confiscation of ever-present boatloads of cocaine--forged in his mind "a new American metaphor" which became his third novel, "Mile Zero." Sanchez has called it his "cosmic Cannery Row."

With the novel's panoramic opening of the Space Shuttle hurtling toward new frontiers, Sanchez places the reader in Key West, where desperate refugees flee to a dream of sanctuary in America while sleek powerboats race for a championship cup. Sanchez tells the story of 1960s refugees whose paths cross in this Caribbean paradise.

St. Cloud, a political activist who worked against the Vietnam War, ironically guilt-ridden for not participating in the war, lives in a constant alcoholic haze. He crosses paths with Voltaire, a teen-aged Haitian accused of murder who is the only survivor of an ill-fated refugee boat. He meets Lila, a secretive young Southern woman, who was an abused child and now struggles to break the psychological spell of M. K. (Monkey Killer), a perverted Vietnam veteran and cocaine smuggler who participates in Central American civil wars. St. Cloud is hired as an interpreter by Justo Tamarindo, a Cuban American police officer, who understands Key West's legacy of slavery, the Cuban Revolution, and the volatile present of the marijuana, cocaine runners, the wretched illegal immigrants, the leftover drug-fried hippies of a past generation and the practitioners of Voodoo and Santeria.

St. Cloud and his wife Evelyn represent the human wreckage of the Vietnam generation, whose lives have been shattered against the materialistic reefs of consumer America. They are hippies of the '60s who have become the disenchanted yuppies of the '80s. Evelyn's disappointment with life is based on her past. Her anti-war commitment drove her to desperate extremes. She repeatedly sacrificed her body to save the lives of young men of draft age. "Evelyn could not stop a war, but she could start a man's conscience. Some of the bland-faced recruits walked away from her bed, away from the airfield, drifted down the highway, distancing themselves from a killer identity before it was too late, abandoning their own names and families, slipping into neutral countries, or disappearing into the cracks of a burgeoning underground."

In Key West, Evelyn and St. Cloud become estranged. "The unshakable guilt of Vietnam became St. Cloud's mistress, swelling to disproportionate balance between himself and Evelyn." Evelyn finds herself in another woman and St. Cloud falls into alcoholism and madly in love with Lila, a girl about 20 years old, who "was born on the losing side of the American tracks, who leaves her violent husband to become entangled with the cold- blooded and psychologically twisted M. K." "St. Cloud did not know if his heart was being tricked by the fatal attraction of false romantic lights, leading him in desperate pursuit of his own lost youth." The absent, mysterious and indestructible M. K. is a character whom Sanchez seems to have added to portray the soldier as a victim of the Vietnam War. By weaving together these many little narratives about the people of Key West, Sanchez creates a magnificent tapestry.

Explicitly more powerful than any of Sanchez's disenchanted Euro-Anglo characters, however, is Justo Tamarindo, whose efforts to solve a bizarre murder deeply involve him in the rituals of Voodoo and Santeria. As a literary creation Justo is remarkable, standing far above Sanchez's other characters. Taking great pride in his identity and heritage, Justo is their opposite in values and attitude toward life. In Justo Sanchez forges a new race, a new world vision, for in him Afro-Cuban, Latin American and Euro-Anglo cultures come together. In tracing Justo's familial roots, Sanchez splendidly narrates the history of slavery and the contribution of Afro-Cubans in the tobacco and fishing industries of Key West.

According to Sanchez, Key West has died a thousand deaths, going from the richest city in America to the poorest. Key West died when the Shipwreck Laws changed, when the turtles were all slaughtered, and when the lucrative slave auctions were abolished. Justo's family survived these deaths, always bearing seeds, to change the status quo. Justo's awareness of past and present history simultaneously brings these people together and sets them apart.

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