Pacazo, a novel by Roy Kesey. Dzanc Books (2011). $15.40 hardcover, $8.79 Kindle.
Today I have the pleasure of posting a review by one friend of a book by another friend. I know: A good day, right?
Below, Philip Graham (himself interviewed here and speaking here on the award-winning journal Ninth Letter) reviews the first novel of Roy Kesey (interviewed here, reading from the novel here, and pictured here imitating a tapir).Pacazo’s been selling like snowcones in hell since it came out in January, and two Random House imprints (Jonathan Cape for hardcover in early 2012 and Vintage for paper in 2013) have just bought English-language rights for the UK and Commonwealth. --Churm
Review by Philip Graham
In the forty or so book reviews I’ve written in the past, I’ve always been quite clear with editors whenever they’ve contacted me about a particular book, whether I could write a review or not. Nope, this author once wrote nice things about one of my short stories; sorry, that’s an old friend; nope, I really dislike the author, don’t tempt me! But if the field was clear of complications, I’d consider reviewing any suggested book.
When asked to review Roy Kesey’s novel Pacazo, I immediately said yes, and only later did I think about all my connections with the author. Kesey’s dispatches from China for McSweeney’s inspired me to try my own hand at that literary genre; I’ve participated on two literary panels with him; hosted him to give a reading at the University of Illinois; and as fiction editor of Ninth Letter I’ve published him three times in the magazine, including an excerpt from Pacazo. Roy has written a blurb for my latest book. And when I came to the end of Pacazo, I discovered that I’m listed in the acknowledgements. If all this doesn’t give off high levels of compromising logrolling radiation, I don’t know what else would.
So, dear reader, up front: I am not to be trusted, except as a great admirer of Roy Kesey’s writing. And this is one hell of a novel, which quietly stakes out unusual territory with such ease that sometimes it’s surprising to realize how deeply immersed one has become in the multiple pasts and the uncertain future of the narrator, John Segovia.
John, a large North American man who teaches English at a university in Piura (the oldest Spanish city in Peru, founded by Pizarro in 1532), easily stands out among the local inhabitants in this small city, almost as if his bulk is emblematic of the cultural reach of the U.S. He feels an uneasy kinship with the “uncommonly large” local iguana known as a pacazo. Identifying with its size, John also secretly regards the creature as a “coincidence made scaled flesh, a god no one worships anymore, not magnificent in its fury like the gods of the Wari or Moche or blood-smeared Chavín but some petty, bitter local god who hates fat pale pillaging strangers.”
The intricate cruelties of Pizarro’s conquests haunt John, who was told in childhood by his father that he is related to one of the conquistador’s soldiers, Juan de Segovia, a minor figure once seen in a historical film on TV about the Spanish conquest. “Your ancestor. We named you after him,” his father tells John. This tale helps him through a bullied childhood, and eventually inspires him to become a scholar of Incan history and the Spanish Conquest, where his research leads him to conclude that “to the best of anyone’s knowledge Juan de Segovia died before fathering any children, is thus the ancestor of no one.”
But the fiction of this supposed ancestor wasn’t the only reason Peru stirred John’s young imagination. In high school in northern California, John met an exchange student from Peru, who told him that “in Peru even fat ugly men can marry attractive intelligent women who love to swim and dance and love, as long as the men have blue eyes and foreign passports and are not totally cojudo. I know what this makes me, do not have to be told what this makes me.”
John does indeed fall in love with a Peruvian woman, Pilar, a student at the university where he teaches, but the initial scenario doesn’t play out as he had anticipated. “Pilar sat in the front row alone and made me promise never to leave Peru. Not a matter of passports, then, and she saved me or would have.” They marry, but soon after the birth of their daughter Mariángel, one evening his wife Pilar takes a cab to the marketplace and, as John later obsessively recounts to himself, “she will be taken into the desert, will be raped, strangled, left for dead, will regain tortured delirious consciousness, walk the wrong direction, and die of heat stroke the following day.”
Pilar’s death goes unsolved, the trail of clues left cold by a seemingly indifferent police investigation, and John takes it on himself to search for the murderer. He has little to go on. With only a brief glimpse of a the cab driver’s face who took her to the market, and a partial remembrance of the license plate, beginning with P and ending with the number 22, John treks through the city of Piura, for those places most frequented by cabdrivers: bars, hotels, the market itself, searching for that elusive license plate, that cabby’s half-remembered profile. He periodically staples flyers with Pilar’s pictures on telephone poles from neighborhood to neighborhood. At times, John takes a bus out to the crime scene in the desert, and he searches for any evidence that might have been missed, any clues that might bring Pilar’s killer to justice.
John’s obsessive desire for justice and revenge so preoccupies him that he abandons any interest in his research of the conquest years, and becomes instead a historian of a narrower range of time. “I could have been the first historian to turn the adobe into narrative, but of course that is not possible now,” he tells himself. “The true story of a single night, less than a night, of a few hours only—this is all I can allow myself to want.”
Like most of us, John lives in multiple times—something in the present moment will veer him to a consideration of a moment from his California past, or a military strategy of the conquest of Peru (John, vainly, cheers on the Incas, while of course he knows that they were defeated, that his imagining can have no effect on the outcome). A local city landmark or a town passed by on a bus will trigger a deadly fantasy of revenge upon his wife’s killer. At other times her lost presence simply overwhelms him: “My wife smelled of mango and cypress and sage between her shoulder blades.” Kesey is so nimble-footed here with these shifts of consciousness that the reader can follow them as safely as a quick turn through white water.
Sometimes John’s fantasies of retribution burst out into dangerous action and he’ll revert to violence on a moment’s suspicion, managing to return to the present moment before he has done too much damage. The people in Piura know the story of his wife’s tragic death and his raising of their daughter, and so give him some latitude. But their patience steadily decreases.
Though the novel becomes a kind of murder mystery, it is more concerned with mysteries of personal fate and cultural history, what is inescapable and what might not be. Will John find the true killer before he himself kills someone he believes is guilty? There’s a good chance any victim may be innocent, considering the sketchy evidence upon which he is relying. Then his daughter will become, effectively, an orphan. Or will he heal enough, through the raising of his daughter, to avoid this possible outcome? Some of the most moving passages in Pacazo concern John’s relationship with his daughter, Mariángel, and the day-to-day intensity of raising a toddler, the tenderness of loving a child: “I turn the volume all the way down and sing her a lullaby medley of Nat King Cole and Aerosmith. She is asleep before the first chorus. I have a wonderful voice.”
Then, in the middle of the novel, a new character arrives, the weather pattern El Niño, and wreaks steady, relentless destruction on Piura, months and months of never-ending rain until the city itself begins to crumble. Its presence dominates the middle of the book, seems far more than weather, as John chillingly describes: “Elsewhere one is told that rain is a temporal thing, that it started at twelve-thirty and ended at twenty past four. This is a sort of lie. Rain is spatial, and this will be known on the river: the rain comes, an opaque curtain, a line on the black water past which the surface roils, the front edge of the storm is closer now and closer, and I duck as it moves over me, I am inside and it is a living thing, furious around me and beating warm, a great chaotic heart at and times it is hard to breathe, the water or the air is so thick.”
The storm, however, may be John’s good luck. The onslaught of the weather, the continual rising of the river that divides Piura, is so grim that he neglects some of the stations of his mourning, he searches for the guilty cabdriver less often, and then he meets a young woman, Karina, who may offer him a path to safety. Ironically, the leveling rain (houses disappear into muddy rubble, bridges collapse) is cleansing to John, as if over the months it begins to wash out some of his obsession. Yet even through this narrative breathing space, the reader remains unsettled, knowing the killer has yet to be found.
If El Niño has been drawn so well by Kesey that it becomes akin to a character in the novel, the same can be said for the city of Piura and the culture within which it is embedded. I’ve rarely read a novel that so completely conveys the daily-ness of another culture—the smells of the street, the taste of the food, the music, the local dances, the significance of small cultural markers in the speech patterns; the rhythms of the seasons. “Everything in the world is strange,” John declares early in the novel, and the reader comes to feel the same way, as drawn to the life of Piura as John is, and feels grateful for the little doors that offer further entry into the culture: “A Peruvian who pauses before saying yes is in fact saying No. This took me two years to learn, was a source of much frustration, but does no harm once everyone involved knows the code.”
Kesey offers such detailed access to John Segovia’s attentive personality that he brings us into the world John loves and enlists us further in our concern for the precarious balance of his fate. By the end of this wise and sorrowful, and even joyful, novel, I was reminded of the Incan “Venus of Frías,” an ancient gold statuette of a naked woman that, as John describes, “no one who sees it can look away.” Roy Kesey’s novel Pacazo can have the same effect on a reader as that statue, for it, too, is “beautiful in a wholly disturbing sense.”