Monday, June 21, 2010

Novella Month review: "Brazil" by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Jesse Lee Kercheval’s novella Brazil is an offbeat, thrilling journey into the heart of America—assuming, that is, that heart is the mermaid tank at Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida. Or maybe it’s the “world’s largest carousel” in the House on the Rock, a bizarre architectural wonder cum museum of curiosities. Or, perhaps, you’ll find that heart at Wilma’s World of Dolls in Wisconsin.

In any case, America—if it even exists—is both the idea and the place at the center of this road-trip novel which briskly follows a May-December couple on their quest from Miami to Wisconsin and all heartland stops in between.

In celebration of Novella Month, I’ve committed myself to reading a few choice contemporary American short novels. I’m currently working my way through Josh Weil’s impeccably beautiful The New Valley and will try to post my thoughts on that at a later date. But my first stop was Kercheval’s Brazil—and I couldn’t have picked a better example of everything that’s right with current American fiction. This is the kind of writing that crackles with energy from the very first pages when 19-year-old Paulo meets woman-of-a-certain-age Claudia in a Miami bar:
I took the drink….and went to sit at the bar, which was made of glass bricks and underlit so that all the people sitting at it looked ghastly or exciting, depending on your mood.

She sat next to me. In the mirror, she looked thin and rich, a woman with dark hair and eyes as brown as mine, although hers were raccooned with mascara. She was wearing a black dress so simple it had to be expensive and silver earrings like needles. Pretty good, but pretty old, in her forties somewhere. Almost as old as my mother. She looked me over in the mirror too, steadily, as if the mirror was where I really was.
As we come to learn, Paulo is a very reflective young man, desperately wanting a stable home life--an American domesticity which always eludes him. Paulo works as a bellboy in the Royale Palms hotel—the same hotel where he was raised by his mother after his Brazilian father abandoned him as a baby.
The last time he came I was two, and sometimes I think I can almost remember him. I have this memory of something white, like a terry cloth bathrobe, moving back and forth in front of the bars of my crib, sort of like the way they used to show Jesus in the old movies, all hem and no face.
Paulo lives a stationary transient life—that is, one in a hotel whose other tenants are always in flux. Add to the mix the fact that he’s “half-Brazilian” and he is a boy without a country. More than anything, he says, he wants to be normal. But he won’t find it—at least not in the pages of this book.

As a hormone-turbulent teenager who dropped out of community college after he caught his girlfriend cutting his best friend’s hair (a sure sign of foreplay, in Paulo’s estimation), he’s a cast-adrift youth—a ripe fruit fit for plucking by someone like Claudia with her raccoon-mascara eyes. A Hungarian refugee temporarily estranged from her husband, Claudia is also a drifter looking for purpose…and redemption for past mistakes. She hires Paulo to drive her north in her 1988 black BMW and thus begins one of the oddest, most charming relationships since Harold met Maude.

They set off to look for America and find it in Hershey bars, Weeki Wachee mermaids, cocaine, and shopping malls. They also find grace, love, and forgiveness--unexpected gifts from unlikely strangers.  Set in 1988, Brazil is candy-coated with all the Reagan-era signposts: drugs, sex, conspicuous consumption and, of course, Miami Vice (whose Don Johnsonian fantasies fuel Paulo as much as the nose-snow). Like that TV series, Kercheval’s novella is sleek, sexy and very exciting all the way to its final, shattering sentence.

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