My latest book review for High Country News.
Daniel A. Olivas
144 pages, softcover: $16.95.
University of Arizona Press, 2011.
“I want … I want everything. Everything that makes life beautiful.” So says Conchita, one of the many characters in Los Angeles writer Daniel Olivas’ The Book of Want. That Conchita is a voluptuous, amorous, unmarried 62-year-old with a penchant for tamales in the morning may tell you something about the world of this novel. The fact that her new boyfriend, Moisés, the widower next door, can levitate, or that her chain-smoking dead mother, Belén, visits her at night will tell you even more. Not to mention the notion that God sometimes communicates through a chicken.
The grandson of Mexican immigrants, Olivas is emerging as an important voice in the social and magical realist tradition of Luis Alberto Urrea, Gabriel García Márquez and Sandra Cisneros. In his sixth book and first novel, Olivas writes about the hard-to-explain and the miraculous. He explores loss and pleasure, the hunger for knowledge, questions about identity, sex, love, truth, money, transcendence.
The Book of Want is a tapestry of braided vignettes. The same scene may be described twice, from different perspectives. At times, the reader feels as if she is Belén, the omnipotent family matriarch, peering down at her progeny from heaven, watching their lives unfold, occasionally swooping down into their dreams to offer advice or warning. The plotlines are loose, fast and unpredictable. Some stories feel resolved; others leave you wanting more. Olivas plays with his narrative form, employing the techniques of meta-fiction: Witness the behind-the-scenes interview transcript between a reporter and some of the novel’s fringe characters. Elsewhere, he writes out conversations via text-message, and in the chapter titled “How to Date a Flying Mexican,” he breaks the narrative down into a series of rules. Rule number three: “Do not conduct Internet research on your lover’s levitation skills. What you find will only cause great agitation and make you perspire profusely. Sometimes controlled ignorance is the only way to get through life.” Olivas’ prose is rich but simple, colorful and sometimes irreverent — as whimsical and likeable as his characters. You will find yourself rooting for these people; you will even find yourself wanting for them. –Kathleen Yale