Is the sheer bulk of a book worth celebration? Roy Kesey has never gone beyond novella-length before, but his novel, Pacazo, runs more than five hundred pages, bulging with detail and incident, with everything from midnight snacks to invasive insects. It's a shaggy-dog tale, one that eventually—boldly—invites comparison to its great progenitor, Don Quixote. In cutting a classic wide swath, Pacazo exposes itself to risk, a tricky balance between hilarity and horror. By and large, though, this rangy novel earns its claim to the old knight's inheritance.
The setting is 1990s Peru, in a backwater that a lesser author would've termed a "sleepy university town." Kesey, however, knocks the setting's quiet and refinement into laughable loops of inefficiency and sloth. There's the traffic, the streetlights, and in particular the narrator, an American ex-pat named John Segovia. He can come across as a slacker, a perpetual grad student, fat and sloppy and lacking a visa. Nonetheless, he's lucked into a university job, teaching English. He's won the hand of the lovely Pilar, and they've wasted no time having a baby—but shortly before the novel opens, the wife dies horribly: raped, beaten, and abandoned in the desert.
The latter-day surfaces, that is, don't mask the Woeful Countenance of the Cervantes model. Comic and tragic live cheek by jowl, to choose an appropriate cliché. Their jostling even disrupts individual sentences. Before Segovia finishes a sentence, his thinking (much distracted by his baby, besides everything else) can rummage through widely disparate subjects. When he's out on one of his dubious quests to solve Pilar's murder single-handed, his investigations give way not just to memories, as you might expect, but also to musings on the bloody exploits of the conquistadors. Such juggling challenges the reader, certainly, but the balls in play stand out vividly, most of the time, easy to differentiate. Meanwhile, the meditations on Pizarro or De Soto prove oddly fitting. Segovia, we learn, may himself be a descendent of a sixteenth century Spanish adventurer, and he originally came to this country to study history. Besides, the conquerors' excesses seem like terrifying kin to Quixote's straight-faced bumbling.
In Pacazo, bumbling and terror emerge also from an environmental disaster, a catastrophe with broader ramifications than the narrator's personal loss. El Nino arrives about mid-novel, in all its muck and wallop and with extraordinary house-guests: "A moth . . . with wasp eyes and a long black nose and a tail that flexes and expands something like a horsehair brush and something like a mace." The destruction provides plenty of knockabout action—some involving frightened mobs. Such scenes are more than simple spectacle, since the high water also sweeps away all the so-called evidence Segovia has gathered concerning his wife's murder. He's forced to recognize how "anger is a form of nostalgia."
This revelation doesn't cure the narrator. The novel's latter half hangs on the hard choice he faces: either resign himself to the battered pleasures of this New World (including an independent-minded new lover), or plunge into a madness as impenetrable as the Amazon, searching for his private El Dorado. Does such a quandary sound improbable? Perhaps, but it's precisely such hyperbole that energizes this author's imagination. He's most agile on the fine line between the Three Stooges and a splatter flick:
I stretch the turkey's neck across the block . . . the machete falls . . . and the turkey seems to explode in place. Blood spurts into my face . . . the turkey's head limp in my left hand and its body wrenching out of my right, both wings free and beating and blood spraying from the neck as the turkey ricochets from rector to student to gardener, blood jetting into our eyes and hair and open mouths, the guest lecturer still swinging.
A "guest lecturer," yes, performs this butchery. This scene takes place at the university, offering a comic foreshadowing of the violence at the novel's climax, and in both cases Segovia functions a guest shanghaied into bloody business. Pacazo thus presents a special case of the gringo out of his element. When such protagonists turn up in B. Traven's The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1927) or Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise (1981), they suffer more sober comeuppance than here.
But the humor isn't all that sets Pacazo apart. Segovia also displays an unusual appreciation for the country he now calls home, and seems to have all of Peru's tortured history at his fingertips. He knows better than to call the novel's eponymous animal by the schoolbook name "iguana." Such a pan-American sensibility remains rare in US fiction, and it allies Kesey with such notable exceptions as John Sayles (Los Gusanos, 1991) and Jay Cantor (The Death of Che Guevara, 1983, a superb book though neglected). Kesey, to be sure, has always been a sensitive voyager. His novella Nothing in the World (2006) snares its protagonist in the last paroxysms of the former Yugoslavia, and the collection All Over (2007) succeeded best in its prize-winning story "Wait," a fantasia of the international community that springs up during a prolonged airport delay. Pacazo marries the freewheeling cool of the latter to the sympathetic darkness of the former, and generates a fresh and powerful reminder of what fiction can accomplish at full length.
John Domini's most recent novel is A Tomb on the Periphery (Gival Press, 2008). A selection of his essays, fiction, and poetry are at johndomini.com.