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Book Review

A Down-on-His-Luck Poet's Quest for Self-Respect and Love

POETRY LOVER By Gary Soto University of New Mexico Press $24.95, 207 pages


One of the more intriguing characters in "Nickel and Dime," Gary Soto's collection of three novellas published last year, is Silver Mendez, the once-promising poet of the Chicano movimiento of the 1970s. In "Nickel and Dime," one gets a glimpse of how Silver squanders what slender talent he has and is reduced to sleeping with another homeless man on a mattress outside a photographer friend's home in Berkeley.

One wonders, upon finishing that collection, what becomes of the hapless, likable poet, a man who lives below the radar of the affluent Bay Area communities he frequents. Author Soto provides the answer in "Poetry Lover," a novel-length exploration of Silver's life that reveals a man who, though his surroundings may be bleak, still clings stubbornly, even irrationally, to his dreams.

While Silver's daily circumstances have improved only slightly as "Poetry Lover" opens, his prospects are looking up--he has miraculously received an invitation from a Madrid university to participate in a conference on Chicano literature. But how can a man who is so poor that his mother cruelly berates him for having no "pot to pee in but your hands" get $1,000 for the trip to Spain?

The answer to that question forms the loose structure of the novel. Loose because Silver takes several detours on his quest to get to Spain, including a fight with friend Al Sanchez, whose later death makes Silver a suspect in a possible murder, encounters with a day-trading friend who teaches and lives in a dilapidated department store-cum-college, and a visit to friends of Sanchez, who engage in comical drunken brawling. Through them all, one wonders at times whether Silver is merely naive in his single-minded desire for a new life or slightly deranged.

Soto showed a talent for revealing the hard-knock life of the characters in "Nickel and Dime," as he has in numerous works for young adult readers, and there are flashes of that stark reality in "Poetry Lover" as well. But the novel has a decidedly more optimistic tone, reflecting as it does the worldview of a man who has every right to be bitter but amazingly is not.

Silver freely shares what little money and food he can muster with other homeless men, while his discovery of never-worn clothes from the '70s is distributed among "writers with no books, artists with forgotten murals, musicians with broken strings and no money for replacements" who later strut through the East Bay, "six Latino John Travolta types . . . snapping their fingers to the tune of 'Staying Alive,' the anthem of anyone who had ever had to get on his knees and crawl into a cardboard box for a rainy night."

Sometimes Silver's overwhelming goodness seems implausible, such as when he apologizes for hitting Sanchez, who meant him every conceivable form of bodily harm, in self-defense, or when he easily forgives his mother's constant harangues. Silver's quest for self-respect and love is reminiscent of the courtly Spanish conquistador, Don Quixote, who mistakes a village inn for a castle and transforms in his mind a peasant girl into his adored Dulcinea.

Silver's love interest reflects his typically cockeyed approach to life: His intended is Linda, Sanchez's estranged wife. Decades before, Silver and Linda shared a few youthful couplings before he unceremoniously dumped her, a fact that the matured poet wants to rectify. And while many readers may want Linda to assert herself and tell her wayward old love to take a hike, others will find themselves hoping that this unlikely duo will come to a place of shared peace.

Whether they do or not, and whether Silver Mendez is able to fashion his sometimes awkward flashes of poetic insight into a new book of poetry and life for himself in Spain, is what ultimately gives "Poetry Lover" its power. It further establishes Soto as an affecting writer for adults as well as young people.

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