Monday, September 17, 2018

Book Review: 'Understanding the Alacran' by Jonathan LaPoma

California author Jonathan LaPoma not only writes novels (three to date) but also screenplays, poetry and songs! He earned his BA in history and a secondary education credential from the State University of New York at Geneseo, gathered ideas or seeds for future novels from his travels both the US and Mexico, began writing and winning awards for his works, and now teaches secondary school in San Diego. The handsome young artist explores themes of alienation and misery as human constructions that can be overcome through self-understanding and the acceptance of suffering. His new novel UNDERSTANDING THE ALARCAN (in ways, a prequel to his DEVELOPING MINDS) won the silver medal in the 2017 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President's Awards (Contemporary/Literary category).

To assuage the conundrum of the title, alacrán is the Spanish word for scorpion. Jonathan places this story in Mexico, and as background he offers a paean to that country ‘I’d arrived in Mexico four months earlier. The trip was long and an experience in itself. I flew from Buffalo to Cleveland to Houston to Guadalajara, and in Guadalajara I took a wild cab ride to the central bus station where I boarded a bus to Lila. The bus ride was peaceful and helped to dilute several of the nagging voices of ‘reason’ I hoped to dissolve in whatever solvent the Mexican people had to offer. The bus itself was comfortable and would have been empty if not for the two giggling girls sitting to my right. My attention, however, was focused through the window to my left. It was late, but the dying amber sun held on just long enough to cast a bronze hue on the lush fields and jagged mountains beyond them— a cordial greeting for this strange white man. For hours I stared at the small fruit stands and taquerias and auto garages that lined the highway. The dusk had drawn the people from the protective cover of their homes. Shoeless jugadores played soccer matches on dirt fields lit by streetlights, while others worked on cars and smiled. Others stood talking, laughing over god knows how many beers, while elderly men and women sat in lawn chairs, quietly basking in the company of those around them. There were great fields of tall grass with fires burning in the distance, flames leaping off the world like brilliant, localized solar flares. There were big gorgeous mountains on the horizon, and every so often a moonlit river would cut through a forest of towering palms as if for nothing other than to please the hungry eyes my inadequate soul had been so longing to satiate. The girls to my right would shoot me intermittent glances, then whisper and giggle. Their hushed words weren’t necessary. Even if I could have understood them, I don’t think I would have paid them any attention.’
Throughout this fine novel LaPoma shares insights into the Mexican people as well as any writer today. He dissects the anguish of coming of age, drugs, the struggle for freedom, despair and its antidote – hope. All this he delivers with eloquence and humor.

To borrow a bit from the book’s plot synopsis, ‘Trying to escape the oppression leading him to drinking, drugs, and despair, 22-year-old William James rejects a teaching position offer at a prestigious Buffalo high school and moves to Mexico to find freedom in its beaches, mountains, and culture. But soon, this freedom becomes oppressive as well as William finds himself unable to avoid the pull of the wild party scene in the small town of Lila where he lives. He continues a downward spiral until he meets a complex and compassionate Mexican woman whose love inspires him to face the question he's been avoiding: Is this trip a desperate search for life or a slow death? A dark but humorous coming-of-age novel, UNDERSTANDING THE ALACRÁN explores many of the questions that haunt young people searching for love and their place in this world, and offers a poetic look at the raw beauty and healing power of Mexico.’

That is a fine summary, but what it does not allow is to feel the beauty of Jonathan’s writing style and the infectious manner in which he pulls us into this mélange. Conversations are raw, turgid, and right on the money, and just when the reader feels this is all dark comedy, Jonathan waxes poetic – and the change is seamless. This is yet another brilliant book from a very promising new author. He is one to watch. Grady Harp, August 17

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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