Crime With Passion
Alfredo Véa's 'Gods Go Begging' Is A Luminous Third Novel.
By Randall Holdridge
SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:
Gods Go Begging, by Alfredo Véa (Dutton). Cloth, $24.95.
ARIZONA-BORN ALFREDO Véa's third novel, Gods Go Begging, should prove to be his break-out achievement. Véa is already well-recognized by the inclusion on numerous Chicano literature reading lists and course syllabi for his first, Phoenix novel, La Maravilla. In Gods Go Begging, he has conceived a work so ambitious thematically and stylistically, and so timely in its interests, that it surely deserves a broad readership.
Jesse Pasadoble, San Francisco public defender and Vietnam vet, is an aptly (even wittily) named hero. The double murder in the gangsterized ghetto on Potrero Hill of two women -- one black, one Vietnamese -- dances Pasadoble not only into a passionate crime, but also into his wartime past. The motif of doubling is maintained throughout the book in the cast of characters, in the shifting storyline, in the sub-plot of the white supremacist falsely accused of child sexual abuse, even in the structure of the individual chapters. If the hand of Fate may seem too heavy in this machinery of interior reference and reflection, the aesthetic satisfaction it brings will bear favorable comparison to the rising tension accomplished in Catch 22's tightening spiral structure. Indeed, one comic chapter of biting satire, in which a terrified and disillusioned padre is dressed down and then sent back into combat by his liquor-swilling, behind-the-lines superior officer in the chaplain corps, seems explicitly to invite that comparison.
The crime on Potrero Hill is the culmination for Pasadoble, and others in Gods Go Begging, of a violent incident years earlier on a contested hill in the Vietnamese highlands. The settings and occurrences on both are vividly, even brilliantly, described. The circumstantial logic which joins the events is not causal so much as it is coincidental, and perhaps some will account for this as the pervasive influence of "magical realism" on Véa's writing. That is certainly there, for example in a long, philosophical sequence in which the deserting chaplain -- who later reappears as a homeless man in San Francisco -- drifts sick and delirious down the Mekong River in an ultimate escape into oblivion.
However, the relentless forward momentum which reunites the main characters, as either victims or avengers, across the dual divide of 30 years and the Pacific Ocean, results from individual habits of the heart, not coincidence and authorial sleight of hand. Both Véa's hilltop outposts are absolutely damned, but just as absolutely they are redeemed, by the human qualities of perseverance and optimism which are called in the case of the murdered women, "wanting too much."
Jesse Pasadoble is said to have been lucky in Vietnam: "All that had been amputated was his ability to give or receive love." His power as a storyteller kept him sane during the war, when he was a master at the grunts' foxhole game called "supposing," in which alternative histories result from imagined transpositions: "Suppose the wind had been blowing just right back in the 16th and 17th centuries...Just imagine what would have happened if Hernán Cortez and his men had been blown far off course and landed at Plymouth Rock instead of Veracruz. On the other hand, imagine that the pilgrims had been blown south by a terrific gale and the Mayflower had run aground in the Yucatán peninsula." Charmingly, we end up with Tecate bottles left behind on the moon.
In the present, Jesse drinks acidic coffee in the basement of the courthouse with other public defenders, and the embattled game is now called "I once had this guy," the telling of stories about former clients who epitomize criminal stupidity and brutality. In this underground world of jailhouse violence, Jesse considers that "The end of desire was a greater tragedy than the end of life itself." Drink and dreams are his demons.
Assigned to defend Biscuit Boy, the homeboy accused of the murder of Mai and Persephone (there is much in this name, too, suggestions of the Eleusian Mysteries, and ties later invoked to Lysistrata), Jesse is drawn into another war zone of dealers and thieves: "[The lawyer] shook his head at the throng of aimless boys at the top of the hill. As they stood side by side, their colorful clothing seemed to join together to form one huge advertising billboard...Here, where Biscuit Boy was born and raised, was a free fire zone, open season on any moment of calm. Like the Middle Ages, this was a place of basic oral communication only. An oligarchy of sports and movie celebrities ruled over a new consumer peasantry. Like poor soldier serfs, these children built their lives around the imaginary castles of athletes and actors...There were icons on every television urging children to buy denim icons for their legs and canvas icons for their feet."
Investigating the crime, and seeking to humanize Biscuit Boy before putting him in front of a jury, Jesse Pasadoble confronts both his past and the vacancies within himself, that state in which, "when desire is stripped of humanity...all that remains is war."
Author Véa is a criminal defense lawyer in San Francisco. He is himself a veteran who was sent to Vietnam after a youth as a migrant worker. He worked his way through law school at a variety of jobs, from truck driver to carnival mechanic. More than the sum of these things, he is a luminous writer. His language is colorful and allusive, and he has the rare skill to match elegant syntax to the complementary expression of his thought. One may question the facility of a politics which can build an analogy between field medics and public defenders ("We tend the wounded, he thought, those who were wounded by life, by testosterone, by poverty"); yet, there is great nobility, and a sort of futile heroism, in his vision of men and women struggling to make civilization in a brutal world with no weapons except the decency and compassion of their desires.
Weekly Wire Interview with Alfredo Véa, Jr.Drawing on his experiences as a young soldier in Vietnam, Alfredo Véa, Jr.'s Gods Go Begging is the first novel to examine the Vietnam War from the perspective of a Latino soldier. Raised as a migrant worker in Arizona, and currently a criminal defense lawyer in San Francisco, Véa is also the author of the critically acclaimed novels La Maravilla and The Silver Cloud Café.
Alfredo Véa, Jr.: Gods Go Begging is at its base a book about communication. The battle in Vietnam is set on a hill that is a cryptographic relay station. The North Vietnamese attempt to break the codes. The two women who begin and end the story attempt to break the code of their husbands' infatuation with violence. The Biscuit Boy character is saved by teaching him language. The entire Army experience, replete with sexual metaphor and symbol, operates only to deprive young men of the ability to speak to their own souls and to the souls of others. In this book, it is communication that changes the world. Those who should have died do not. Those who are powerless are not. The title of the book comes from an 18th century ballet in which two servants are ridiculed as they serve aristocrats at a feast. In the end, the servants remove their disguises and show themselves to be gods. All three books do this: celebrate the forgotten; illuminate the unseen.
What began as a book about war slowly became a work obsessed with the idea of desire. A novel that should have been filled with men found women to be its core and central power. What began an anecdotal descriptions of force and futility in Vietnam became something else altogether, something that I could never have foreseen. A hill on the Laotian border came to exist simultaneously with a poverty-ridden hill in San Francisco and the hillside home of a strange family in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Alfredo Véa, Jr.: They are related in that they are from the "underside" of our society, not written from the mainstream point of view, or from a mainstream sensibility. As Buckeye Road in La Maravilla was "outside" of Phoenix (i.e. the archetype of European society and history are but a backdrop against which "Third World" peoples live and thrive), Silver Cloud was written from without, running parallels between "unseeable" things; the angels of the Milton and the angels of my youth. Both are invisible--the first because of their ethereal nature and the second because a racist society would not (will not?) see migrant farm workers as equal, living humans. Both books use retrieval of the past (memory) as the way to define the self; both argue that ethnic human beings can live in a modern world without surrendering their souls, their music, their foods.
Alfredo Véa, Jr.: Women became the core of the novel quite unexpectedly. I ran directly into the conundrum that young men seeking sexual license and prowess were drawn into uniform. All their lives they had been subjected to John Wayne films, cowboy movies, thousands upon thousands of movies that say that the one who wins the girl is the one who wins the fight. The second thing that such films say is that there is no necessity for courtship of sensitivity. Simply be the hero and the credits will roll over the two of you. This "heroism" is defined again and again as sports prowess, military prowess--even as things so insipid as ownership of the right car or the right clothing. This is all a perversion of desire, and it has so many of us in its thrall...even me. All the women that I have known have wanted just one simple thing: to be able to speak to me of emotional truths. For so long I could not do it. Another thing this book has in common with the first two: by writing I seem to be able to work things out; to get to the core of it.
Alfredo Véa, Jr.: No, I don't like the idea of being characterized as a Chicano author. I would rather be characterized as an author who is Chicano. The problem with the former is that there is, whether we wish to admit it or not, a category of art that is generated by minorities when it first considers an "assault on the American canon." That art is usually marked by nostalgia for a mythological past; by infighting and disputes about the "authenticity" of the particular art and the intentions of the artist. Witness criticisms of Chicano artists whose writings were not overtly political as "bourgeois." Witness the plethora of simplistic "pocho" writings that have infested every politically correct bookstore. Witness the dispute during the Harlem renaissance over the issue of an artist's obligation: art for the sake of art or art for the sake of the political...i.e. the advancement of the black race. The infighting in that dispute grew very destructive...even in an era and place that was blessed with brilliance. In my own experience I have had many Latino people in the audience at my readings ask me why I believed that I spoke for the entire Latino race! Ridiculous, myopic thinking! Yet commonplace among colonized people who view the dominant culture's art as legitimate and that of the colonized race a mere travesty whose only purpose is to assert a political agenda. Evolved cultural thinking never asks if James Joyce represents all the Irish people. In many of the universities where my books are read and where I have spoken it is the Chicano students who often question the necessity of reading the works of other races. Slowly this insipid posture is changing. Until it changes completely there will never be a Chicano intelligensia. Implicit in the concept of "Chicano" literature is the political agenda rather than the agenda of sighting the artistic bar and endeavoring to surpass it. I know that many who read this opinion will be stunned by it and recoil in righteous indignation. But they are not artists. The Mexican people in Norte America have artists in their midst to compete with any artists on earth. As Irish literature has surpassed its English overlords, so Chicano literature will rise to the fore much as Irish and African writing have done . The act of rising is political, the result is art.
Alfredo Véa, Jr.: I can't compare myself to other Vietnam era authors. I have read many novels about Vietnam, many very good, but none addressed the issue that I feel begs to be addressed. I plan to write many books, but only one about Vietnam. In Gods Go Begging, I intentionally avoided anecdotal tales of Vietnam because of a recognition on my part that Americans are immune to tales of combat and horror. There are no action films in our country today that cannot be boiled down to "teenagers save the world through use of violence and technology devoted to violence; said teenagers thereby acquiring sexual license." Night time television in America is violence and little else. How could the primal elements of war be explained to a country that luxuriates in the mythology of violence? I set out to write of war in a completely different way. Amazingly enough, my book about war became a book about womankind; about desire in all of its forms and mutations.
In Vietnam I found myself alone in many ways. There were few in the field who could discuss books or poetry or cared to deeply analyze the razor's edge of history upon which they slid. The few who could analyze and discuss realized that it was the surest path to despair and utter loneliness. I wrote the book on a dozen levels and in five languages. I wrote what I so longed to read about that experience, but could never find on the bookshelves. I attempted to answer for myself why so many boys were to willing to go; why so many were surprised by the horror of it; why so many have returned home to find that "home" is no longer. For twenty-eight years I have lived with nightmares and anxieties. In Gods Go Begging I set out to explore the nature of war and why I was curious enough to seek it out.
Alfredo Véa, Jr: I only had sporadic schooling before high school. The Fuller Brush man in La Maravilla was the first to give me an encyclopedia. He is responsible for my ability to read. The Pinoys in the Central Valley gave me a second set of encyclopedia and taught me basic math and to write longhand. It was they who demanded that I not live a life in the fields. I remember so many of them, tired and dusty, sitting down next to me at the bunkhouse table, tapping their brown foreheads with a gnarled index finger and saying to me: "use this."
-- Jeff Biggers
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