YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Soothing troubled spirits

Still Water Saints A Novel Alex Espinoza Random House: 246 pp., $23.95

February 04, 2007|Joy Nicholson | Joy Nicholson is the author of the novels "The Tribes of Palos Verdes" and "The Road to Esmeralda."

PERHAPS any rough town in the prickly California desert cries out for a dose of the supernatural. Perla Portillo, who sells charms, candles, spells and herbal remedies at her Botanica Oshun, aims to provide that to the frazzled community of Agua Mansa. Because its population includes truckers, speed freaks, physicians, alcoholics, racists, punks, laborers and waifs, anything can happen -- and usually does.

Perla, the central character in Alex Espinoza's debut novel, "Still Water Saints," is a curandera (healer) and a bruja (witch) -- a modern remnant of the wise-woman tradition. Understandably, she agonizes over whether there is a place for her in today's world. She has no expensive medical equipment or pharmaceutical pills -- instead, she has "things of earth and sky. Things born of root and bone and flesh." She has "sprays and amulets, saints and gods with tempers and needs" and teas and remedies "scrawled on tattered index cards."

But does anyone in fast-food rich, strip-malled Agua Mansa care?

The answer is yes, no and maybe.

From various vantages, Espinoza explores how the community views Perla's efforts to bring healing and magic into their lives -- and in doing so, he treats us to a rich, episodic gem of human foible, need, greed, beauty and weirdness.

The novel details a secret world few experience -- the oddly noble calling of the workaday spiritualist. Neither a quack out to milk the unfortunate nor a celebrity healer like Deepak Chopra, Perla is simply a tired woman with love, patience and herbal knowledge. Her sometimes cynical clients are treated to a willing ear, an unhurried browse, a bit of advice -- nopal cactus paddles, say, for a diabetic patient, or a San Cristobal medallion for a soldier shipping off to war. Mostly, each comer to the botanica is greeted by waves of sensual pleasure -- the luxurious aroma of a slow-burning candle, the scents of spearmint, vanilla, frankincense and cinnamon, the glitter of Egyptian ankhs and cowrie shells set against rows of sweet-smelling wood boxes.

Sometimes the botanica's clients get better, sometimes they don't. To his credit, Espinoza doesn't employ the tricks of magical realism to lift his characters from their difficult, sometimes hopeless lives. Nobody sprouts wings and flies into the heavens after a hard day at the military base or doughnut shop. No saints materialize -- no El Santo Nino de Atocha, whose specialty is "keeping lawsuits away," or San Martin Caballero, who can "draw customers to your business." In fact, nothing particularly fantastical happens. Troubled spirits float in and out, but they are the human kind, trailed by their love affairs, sicknesses, fears and sexual problems. After visiting with Perla, they may not be healed, but they are better for having been listened to, fretted over, cared about -- which is perhaps the real point of botanicas.

In keeping with his tone of realistic magic, Espinoza doesn't shy away from the horror that poverty, cruelty and ignorance inflict on largely Latino Agua Mansa. One episode detailing the relationship between a kidnapped Mexican boy and a sexual predator is searing, nightmarish, sickening. In a slightly less skin-crawling scene, a cheerful baby crawls alone in a dirty apartment in a filthy diaper while his child-mother variously shoots up and wreaks sexual havoc with two best friends. Some of Perla's encounters are sweet, loving and only mildly disturbing. A fat girl is trying to lose weight, and only Perla seems to know that being "fat" isn't the lonely curse it seems to be to the girl's youth-obsessed mother. A drag queen who is looking for a way to be a "real woman" exhibits more nurturing, motherly qualities than many women ever do.

Through it all, hard and soft, Espinoza is unflinching, cool, unsentimental. Even in the lightest episodes, the Tijuana-born graduate of UC Irvine's highly regarded creative writing program is incapable of false or flimsy storytelling. His style is ominous, layered and clean -- reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. "Still Water Saints" is charming, yet its charm is an uneasy one. Its whimsy has teeth. And that is, absolutely, a compliment.

If there is a flaw in the novel, it is that each character's story is so immediately rendered, so involving, that the reader wants to follow its full trajectory. But just as we connect, another of Perla's clients is introduced, described and emotionally calibrated. We want to know what happens to fat Rosa, uptight Teresa or jumpy, tripped-out Beady the Freak, but we never do. As in life, things move on. New people, new situations demand attention. Maybe Espinoza is pointing out that while the rest of us crash busily around like trapped, hyperactive flies, the Perla Portillos of the world -- the slow movers, the relentlessly un-modern -- are the ones who provide continuity and calm. Only they will ever know the full story.

Or maybe not.

Modern life is not easy on true eccentrics and givers. For one thing, people like Perla are often laughed at or marginalized. Because they seldom expend the intense energy required to "brand" themselves and find an agent to get a book or movie deal, obscurity and financial insecurity are their fate.

So it is with Perla.

"The botanica was the place my mother came to only when all other measures had failed," one patron says. "She believes in the power of the unknown, in the intangible strength ... of rocks and stones and amulets ... to make great and wonderful things happen."

And Perla is still there. Always kind, helpful, bold and curious.

There's got to be something magical in that. *

Los Angeles Times Articles