Spanish Harlem serves as both setting and muse in Quiñonez’s disarming third novel (following Bodega Dreams and Chango’s Fire), a tale of a virgin birth told by an adoring admirer. Seventeen-year-old Julio lives upstairs from the pregnant Taína with his Puerto Rican, Jehovah’s Witness mom and unemployed, Marxist dad. Convinced that a revolution of atoms has taken place in Taína’s body, Julio seeks out Taína’s uncle Sal, an ex-con, to find out how he can help. Julio learns much from the mysterious Sal, including things about his own parents’ past. The old guy insists that Julio bring money for Taína’s mom, Dona Flores, who in turn insists that only the very expensive “espiritista” Peta Ponce can discover the truth about the baby’s origin. Julio comes up with a dog-napping scheme that works far too well to be plausible, and in return for sharing his reward money with Doña Flores, he’s allowed to visit Taína, a foulmouthed beauty and the only one of Quiñonez’s characters to ring untrue. But as the baby’s birth draws near and Peta Ponce arrives, Julio’s earnings scam goes heartbreakingly awry. Though its metaphors go down weird rabbit holes and the slang sometimes careens into the awkward, the story is nervy and fresh. Quiñonez’s entire oeuvre should be required reading for those who believe in steering literature toward a more truthful, nuanced view of America. (Sept.)
A lively third installment in a series of novels (Chango's Fire, 2004, etc.) set in Spanish Harlem by Ecuadorian-born novelist Quiñonez.
Parthenogenesis, Puerto Rican style: Her name carries strong hints of the original Taino people whom Columbus first encountered on arriving in the Caribbean, but Taína Flores would seem to have more in common with the supernatural than the historical. The 15-year-old resident of a busy housing project alongside the East River is so carefully watched that, says her no-nonsense mother, Inelda, "she was sure that Taína didn't even masturbate," but yet here she is, pregnant, as if by some visiting angel. Taína sings like an angel and curses like a sailor ("Who the fuck you think we are, the royal fucking family?"), and young Julio Colmiñares is head over heels. He believes she's a virgin, but at 17, a kind of literary cousin of Oscar Wao, he doesn't know quite as much as he thinks he does. It's up to Taína's uncle Salvador, el Vejigante, a scary giant who comes out only at night and who confesses to having been the Capeman way back in the day, to explain the ways of the world along with Julio's lovely parents, immigrants with dreams. Julio is a good kid, but it's all too easy to cross the line separating good from evil: "Destiny says to the bum, You'll always be a bum," a repentant Sal tells him, adding, "The bum says, Because you cheat. And Destiny says, Yeah, but I let you play." Other memorable figures shape the story, including a spiritualist named Peta Ponce who believes that the dead remain on Earth out of sight of God and guide the living—sometimes, as Julio learns, into a mess of trouble. Parts of his story seem almost afterthoughts, parts a little too reminiscent of García Márquez, but Quiñonez brings his imaginative tale to a graceful resolution.
An engaging work blending pop culture, magical realism, and spirited writing.