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Book Review

When Trouble Walks in, She's Ready and Waiting

LOVING PEDRO INFANTE; By Denise Chavez; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $24, 272 pages


Think of a burrito. The concept is simple enough: Wrap various foodstuffs in a tortilla, heat and eat. The quality of the experience depends on the stuff being wrapped--the basic meat and beans and vegetables, the supplementary guacamole and sour cream, those lurking pepper seeds that burn your mouth with surprise when you bite one.

Denise Chavez's latest novel is like that. The wrapper, the tortilla--the plot--isn't complicated. Teresina "La Tere" Avila, a teacher's aide at an elementary school in Cabritoville, N.M., on the Rio Grande, 40 dusty miles from El Paso, falls for the wrong man. Lucio Valadez is married. His daughter is one of Tere's favorite pupils. And, under his surface charm, he's mean.

"I've always been attracted to men who are mean and like to show it," Tere says in what, at the beginning of the story, is a rare moment of self-awareness. "Irma says it's because I've mistaken cruelty for strength, willfulness for free will and selfishness for pride in oneself. I say it's because of the jodida unlucky roll of the eternal black furry dice."

Irma "La Wirma" Granados is Tere's best friend. Both are in their 30s and unattached. Irma's great love is dead; Tere was married briefly as a teenager. Both hang out at Cabritoville's sole hot spot, the La Tempestad Lounge, wear thigh-high go-go boots, dance to the live music of Los Gatos del Sur, drink themselves silly and hope that someone besides the usual pickup suspects comes through the door.

When the man who walks in one night is Lucio, Tere plunges into "a very bad movie . . . a story of unbridled passion. A woman. A man. Sparks. Eternal fire. Damnation."

Tere thinks in terms of movies because she and Irma have long consoled themselves in their singleness by worshiping Pedro Infante, the Mexican film star who died in a plane crash in 1957 at age 40. He's their ideal of manhood, and by analyzing the plots of his movies, such as "La Vida No Vale Nada," they can confront their personal problems as well as the Anglo-Mexican conflicts that are as much a part of border living as mesquite and cowboy boots.

For Tere, voted by her high school class as Most Likely Not to Become a Nun, Irma has always been the voice of reason, a counterbalance for her own hotblooded impulsiveness. In the course of "Loving Pedro Infante," she learns to see herself and Irma in more complex ways. Irma falls, unreasonably, in love with the elderly Anglo owner of the motel where she keeps the books, depriving Tere of her attention just as the affair with Lucio is leading to disaster.

Chavez gives us plenty of hints that Tere isn't as clueless as she claims to be. She sees, for example, that older women at a religious retreat "needed the maleness of God because they were losers, all of them, divorced, single or in bad marriages, with husbands who drank and knocked them around every weekend after the bars let out at two, or who had sons who rifled through their purses for drug money."

Chavez irritates us at first by using dialogue to describe Cabritoville scenes and people when narration would have done it less clumsily. But once we get to the minutes Tere writes for meetings of her Pedro Infante fan club, or the death watch the club holds for its only male member, gay Ubaldo Miranda, who may have attempted suicide, or the list Tere draws up to compare and contrast herself with her namesake, St. Teresa of Avila, or the bawdy talk about men--all the seemingly superfluous but tasty stuff inside the burrito--we're willing to bite off some more.

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