If there is a literary and socially conscious heaven, I know that John Steinbeck is looking down and grinning from ear to ear. The late Cesar Chavez is whispering a quiet ole ! Maxim Gorky is tossing back a celebratory celestial vodka.
Alfredo Vea Jr. has written such a terrific novel about the poor, the disenfranchised and the forgotten that it doesn't make you feel pity at all. It makes you want to quit your job and drive straight out into the Arizona desert to join up with all the tasty sediment at the bottom of America's big bottle of multiethnic wine: Okies, Arkies, Mexicans, Spaniards, African-Americans, members of the Pima, Apache, Papago and Yaqui tribes.
It's easy to get overly enthusiastic about good first novels--wonderful new voices calling to you in sweet fresh tones.
But "La Maravilla" is a big deal. It's beautifully written; it's thematically vital for our times. It addresses questions larger than the mundane world we usually live in. The title itself refers both to a mangy dog and to all the marvels that surround us, the vast fate that holds us in its arms.
Alfredo Vea writes about human diversity beautifully, making light of stereotypes, turning them over in his hands as if they were curious pebbles. If you have a community with 20 races (and that doesn't even include the range of human differences presented by the characters who are gender-dissidents--the transvestites who live together in one bus and lend out their mascara and bugle beads while they plot to invent what will eventually become California Nouvelle Cuisine), then not to give each race its proper due would be worse than being racist. It would be bad manners pure and simple; the author won't stand for that.
Vea, in an accompanying biographical statement, tells us that he grew up in a place like the "Buckeye Road" in this narrative, a cardboard settlement that sprang up years ago outside Phoenix. Buckeye Road is not a town because it has no lights, no plumbing, no post office.
The author and hero are very close here. Vea has said this is as much a memoir as it is a novel. There is a lot of Vea in 9-year-old Beto, who has been deserted by his teen-age mother, Lola, and left in the care of her parents out in this desert hole.
Beto/Alfredo's grandparents represent in one couple the amazing mix that can come together in our mysterious country. Grandma Josephina journeyed here from Spain. She was a woman of good birth who came to Denver on business, married a Yaqui Indian and stayed. (This is the only novel I've ever read where Yaqui shows up as a written language.) Josephina is Catholic, but she's also a \o7 curandera\f7 (folk healer) and that power doesn't come to her from any Father, Son or Holy Ghost. Something else is at work here. Her world is ruled by the Yaqui--that ancient tribe of Indians so fierce that, in Mexico, they still rebel every 20 years or so, and so nostalgic for far places that when a train passes, every Yaqui gets to his feet and stands at attention.
Beto learns from his grandpa (and from peyote) a kind of palimpsest view of history: The world itself is always the same down through the ages--only the forms change. A band of "casual laborers" picked up at dawn by a truck to go into the city is really an Indian war party, traveling by a different brand of transportation. A set of very old black men sitting in the sand on a set of discarded theater seats, repeating the same remark six different ways on each topic before they can turn to the next one, are spending time (certainly not \o7 killing\f7 it) not just in the same way they did during the years of American slavery, but also in the same way they did during long days in Africa, making time slide by with the use of inspired and elegant small talk.
Vea doesn't romanticize poverty. But he allows his fictional grandpa to point out that having yourself and the horizon is more than enough for any human being. To crave what you can't have, to disown yourself, to pine for the unattainable is to be \o7 xipe\f7 , a Yaqui word that means much more than alienated: It is to be spiritually wind-swept and desperate as only an "American" can be.
This is a wonderful book, funny, well-bred, cosmically considerate--even when it gets a little rowdy and raunchy. I can't get it out of my mind.