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Off the Wall in Jackson Heights : LATIN MOON IN MANHATTAN, By Jaime Manrique (St. Martin's Press: $17.95; 212 pp.)

March 15, 1992|Virgil Suarez | Suarez's new book, "Welcome to the Oasis," was published by Arte Publico Press last month. He is also the author of "The Cutter" and "Latin Jazz," novels about the Cuban-American experience

"Latin Moon in Manhattan" by Jaime Manrique, winner of Colombia's National Poetry Award, is a quirky, off-the-wall, first novel. It is also a sad and decadent look at a group of Latinos who, desperately searching for the American Dream, spend their misguided, burned-out lives in the cold, crime- and violence-ridden, surreal streets of New York.

The book is told in a vivid but detached first-person narration by Santiago Martinez, a Colombian-American poet, translator and gay young man. Sammy, as his family and friends call him, is constantly walking that fine line between madness and achieving the American Dream, which to him means being able to finish writing his epic poem about Christopher Columbus. He lives with his cat, Mr. O'Donnell, in a little apartment off 42nd Street overlooking a place ironically called Paradise Alley, overrun by prostitutes, crack-heads, the homeless, porno addicts and shop owners who must run their businesses with gun in hand.

Sammy is surrounded by many odd and bizarre individuals. When he gets back to his apartment after an emotionally draining weekend at Jackson Heights (Little Colombia), he runs into his neighbor, Rebecca Allavant, a librarian from the South, to whom he tells an "abridged" and "sanitized" version of his weekend. After listening, she tells him: "Honey, it sounds like a Flannery O'Connor novel set in Queens."

This, of course, is an accurate description, for many of the characters in this book challenge the definition of grotesque. It is a virtual melting pot of oddballs, zany and weird characters. For example, there is Hot Sauce (Salsa Picante), the midget prostitute who is really an undercover detective; Ben Ami Burztyn, a nouveau-riche Venezuelan, bon-vivant gourmand and obsessed would-be biographer of Edgar Allan Poe; the Urrutias, a cocaine-smuggling family, whose most harmless member, Claudia, wants to marry Sammy even though they both know that it is impossible, since Claudia is also gay.

Then there are the characters in Sammy's family: Gene, Sammy's nephew, who makes door-to-door drug deliveries on his bicycle; Wilbrajan, a.k.a. Lucinda de las Estrellas, Sammy's sister, who sings nostalgic and beautiful tangos and boleros at Saigon Rose, a dangerous nightclub, and who goes through more men than Sammy can count; Bobby, Sammy's childhood friend, who is dying of AIDS. And then there is Lucy, Sammy's mother, who is afraid to confront her son about his sexuality. She is the most endearing and sympathetic character in the book. As the surviving matriarch of what's left of her family, she spends her days in Jackson Heights caring for her second husband, who is dying of Alzheimer's disease; cooking, and listening to Simon Bolivar, a parrot who does renditions of Julio Iglesias songs.

At best, though, this is a novel filled with absurd moments, some of which are intensely human. One such memorable scene happens at the Social Security office where Sammy translates for a Fridania Moquette, a 17-year-old single mother of a deformed child.

When asked by Judge Warpick, an ogre of a woman, what is wrong with her son, Claus Pericles, Fridania says, " 'When Claus was born, he weighed four pounds; he had a bump on his back the size of a grapefruit, and . . .' She paused; this part was obviously painful to her. 'He was born without a penis. So the doctors told me it would be easier to turn him into a girl than to make a penis for him. They said I should raise him as a girl.' 'Why didn't you?' Warpick asked. 'Why didn't you follow the doctor's advice?' Fridania slapped the table; Claus imitated her. 'Because if God had wanted Claus to be a girl, He would have made him a girl.' "

"Latin Moon in Manhattan" is an original debut by an obviously talented writer, but many parts of his novel lack unity and direction. The reader can't help but feel overwhelmed by all the incongruous, haphazard incidents that take place over a few days. Something is lost in Sammy's guilt-driven, passive detachment as he merely witnesses the events of his life without much interaction.

Although "Latin Moon in Manhattan" is being promoted as "a novel in the tradition of 'The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,' " it is nothing like it, being a completely different book about the Latino experience in the United States. "Mambo Kings" is a more mainstream Latino experience; "Latin Moon" is an off-the-wall, wacky novel full of strange characters and bizarre incidents.

But it is a fast-paced, good book because, after all the comic-tragedy, many parts of it are picaresque and rambunctiously funny.

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