"No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain't Never Coming Home Again" (A Symphonic Novel) by Edgardo Vega Yunqué
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
New York, 2003
638 pp., $25
Review by Urayoán Noel
Inclusion is a dangerous game these days. Under the shroud of literary and political fundamentalisms, the artist striving for inclusion must proceed with caution, for the more fragmented and porous the world becomes, the more he or she risks coming across as disingenuous, naïve, or clueless. So what do we do with this monster of a novel that throws caution to the trade winds that spawned it, spitting out the bric-a-brac polemics of our "mental barrios" in a swirling, elegant, courageous and uneven symphony? By turns Bildungsroman, satire, race sermon, Puerto Rican Studies dissertation, picaresque, supermarket tearjerker, and farce, Edgardo Vega Yunqué's new 600+ page brainchild attempts a madcap synthesis of jazz riffs, racebaiting, and acid rainbow rhapsodies -- a Great American Novel written in expressionistic crayola graffiti!
Bill Bailey is the story of Vidamía Farrell, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mom and an Irish dad she has never met. At age twelve, Vidamía finally finds her dad, a Vietnam vet and former jazz pianist named Billy Farrell. As a young man, Billy turned down the chance to join Miles Davis's band in order to volunteer for Vietnam, where he lost two of his fingers and witnessed the death of Joey Santiago, his best friend and Vidamía's uncle. Billy has since remarried and has four kids, but he's still tortured by flashbacks and recriminations, unable to let go of the past, unable to move on. In the process of getting her father back into playing jazz, Vidamía grows up, falls in love, and is forced to confront her own past, her "Irish Rican" identity, and her strained relationship with her mother, the repressed, self-hating, nouveau bourgeois Elsa Santiago. Vidamía's main confidantes in this voyage of self-discovery are her boyfriend, an African American jazz saxophonist named Wyndell Ross, and her spunky half-sister Cookie. With its epic scope and its imaginative daring, this novel considerably expands upon Vega Yunqué's previous books, The Comeback, Mendoza's Dreams, and Casualty Report.
In his From Bomba to Hip-Hop, Puerto Rican sociologist Juan Flores distinguishes between two strands of contemporary Latino fiction: he borrows Gustavo Pérez Firmat's term "on-the-hyphen" to describe mainstream Latino fiction that naively reproduces clichéd identity formulas and panders to our sense of a "shared Latino identity" (e.g. Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings). "Off-the-hyphen" fiction, on the other hand, is politically subversive inasmuch as it tells the raw, bitter "truth" from the scarred ghettoes of the author's skin (e.g. Abraham Rodriguez). Like the jazzmen that inspired it, Bill Bailey plays its own game, refusing to jump onto the "on the hyphen / off the hyphen" see-saw. Vega Yunqué seems to be saying, "Fuck the hyphens either way and let's drop some crazy ?!?!?!' instead!!!" When the mainstream is just one more ghetto, and the ghetto's gone mainstream, it's time to call in Ed Vega for some kickass Bobby Darin karaoke!
At its best, this novel's symphony of voices manages to be genuinely inclusive: a cogent, controlled cacophony. In this respect it raises the stakes on the knee-jerk ghettocentrism often associated with contemporary New York Puerto Rican fiction. While it never flinches in its depiction of the city's nitty-gritty underbelly, Bill Bailey also aims courageously for the literary (did you say political?) mainstream (It's not everyday that a fellow Boricua is picked up by Farrar, Straus and Giroux!). Unafraid of even the most heartstrung lyricism, this sensitive, accessible tale about "moving on up" in Fractured America packs enough prefab epiphanies to fill a half dozen Oprah's Book Club bestsellers. (Teen superdiva Vidamía gets into Harvard, starts her own successful business and comes to terms with her hybrid ethnicity, all without breaking a sweat or popping a zit!!!)
More importantly, Vega Yunqué writes with rare empathy for his characters, especially the young females. While the more-or-less-autobiographical young-man-coming-of-age story is a staple of New York Puerto Rican novels, from Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets through Abraham Rodriguez's Spidertown, Vega Yunqué's ability to hologram the inner worlds of these young women, especially the Latinas, is remarkable. He tells their stories in a refreshingly un-macho and judgment-free language, whether it's Elsa and her homegirls discovering sex, the young and fragile poet Fawn Farrell struggling with her shameful "secret," or the jazz pianist Rebecca Feliciano coming to terms with her own (and her father's) homosexuality.
For starters, there's the story of Billy Farrell's mentor, the jazzman Pop Butterworth and his growing up in the South, told with painful earnestness and corny striving for lyricism. Complete with sunstrokes, spells, potions, and stereotypically mushmouthed accents, Vega Yunqué's South is presumably somewhere between Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha and García Márquez's Macondo: "[She] was a New Orleans Creole and was speaking French, but Rachel said she was speaking African and Indian magic words and was calling on their spirits to come and help her. His mother's fear was so great that her bladder gave out and she felt the urine running down her leg" (192). See the magical realism, do ya?!?!?!
Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Vega Yunqué's novel features a wisdom-dispensing matriarch named Úrsula, while Billy Farrell, its self-absorbed, haunted, and decidedly unassertive antihero would fit in nicely with the Buendía clan. Unlike García Márquez's mythical village, however, this slice-of-down-home-life can get painfully dull and embarrassingly earnest, with about as much depth as a Lifetime original movie. Call it One Hundred Years of Platitude and you'd be pretty much on target.
What's not clear is why any of this Southern mythmaking is necessary (this is, after all, a New York novel). Presumably, these rural, mostly black backstories are the secret history against which the main characters' big city struggles must be measured. I'm guessing that, for Vega Yunqué, these stories of Southern black ancestors are, like jazz, a necessary backdrop against which we must view the story of Puerto Ricans in the United States. On the other hand, the author frequently criticizes America's binary thinking about race and its conflation of race and ethnicity, and takes jabs at black essentialism, racial separatism, and even Louis Farrakhan. Either way, his ideas on race come across as either banal (of the "racism is bad" sort) or fuzzily thought out (as in his flighty brand of Puerto Rican exceptionalism).
Too often, Vidamía becomes a mouthpiece for the author's racial and ethnic sermonettes. Thus, while doing research for a paper ... "She read that in colonial times the Taíno Indians had fought the Spaniards. When they could no longer fight, they clasped their children to their breasts and leapt into the sea, thus setting in motion a strain of self-destruction rather than capitulation in Puerto Ricans. She also understood that race was swept under the rug, and everyone acted as if it didn't matter" (471). Not much in the way of history and utterly uninteresting as revisionism. Vidamía's arguments with Wyndell regarding the issues of race and ethnicity read more like graduate school position papers than as believable dialogue. The author's insistence on preaching about race detracts from the novel's emotional range and impact, as he starts listening less to his characters' inner dialogues than to his own muddled agendas.
Vega Yunqué, in fact, seems torn between two very different political agendas: he wants to satirize the vices and prejudices of America (especially regarding race and historical memory) AND he wants this to be an exemplary novel: a portrait of Puerto Ricans/ Latinos/New Yorkers "moving on up," becoming success stories, laying to rest the pathologies that have crippled them for so long. On the one hand, the novel is populated by outsiders and organized like a freak show: a lovable parade of hermaphrodites, glass eyes, gang rapes, suicides, hail storms, voyeurism, incest, missing fingers, etc. On the other hand, many of the main characters in this novel (especially the young people) are naturally beautiful, effortlessly sexy, confident and outgoing, politically informed, and, of course, musical prodigies (some even have perfect pitch!). They are comfortably bilingual, party-loving overachievers and, most shockingly, Inherently Good People. These young Latinos for the most part don't get fat, don't get acne, don't wear braces, don't wish harm on anybody, don't feel antisocial, and don't have eating disorders. Instead they worry about race relations, Taíno Indians, and getting at least a 1500 on their SATs. Though they all suffer and struggle, they are for the most part, well-intentioned victims of their circumstances.
For better or for worse, the freaks in this novel (Fawn and Billy Farrell, Elsa Santiago, and the Four Horsemen) are infinitely more interesting and moving than the exemplars (like the overachieving Vidamía and the way too cheerful Cookie). Sometimes the Farrells even resemble the Brady Bunch (or, rather, the Partridge Family, since they even have a family band that plays the subways). Perhaps if the author weren't as fixated on making his characters into exemplars for successful Boricuas/New Yorkers, we could care more about their failures.
As the only child of an American father and a Puerto Rican mother (both university professors), I was raised bilingually, biculturally, surrounded by books and opportunities. And even I can't relate to these overachieving kids! Pardon the self-pity, but as a teen I was fat, I had acne, I didn't break 1200 on my SATs and I couldn't have cared less about Taíno Indians, despite being named after a cacique (Today, nothing much has changed ... except for the acne, thank God). I respect Vega Yunqué's attempt to portray Vidamía as the posterchild for Boricua youth and their post-ghetto self-empowerment, but if a Puerto Rican as "non-traditional" as I am can't relate to these wonderkids, I wonder, kids,: who will?
Finally, the title. Vega Yunqué calls Bill Bailey a "symphonic" novel. While I've riffed on its "symphonic" qualities at various points throughout this review, it seems to me a somewhat misleading handle. Why not "cacophonic" or "stereophonic" (both terms with a little more of a jazz tinge)? And speaking of jazz ... Where's Machito's Asia Minor? Where's Pérez Prado's Exotic Suite of the Americas? Both of the Cuban big band gods appear in the novel, but merely as extras. I certainly don't want to sound revisionist with regards to the author's jazz riffs, but I do think it's weird that a novel as restless and omnivorous as this one pretty much sticks to a generic definition of jazz. Vega Yunqué's conventional (reverential?) treatment of jazz also extends to his writing style. When I saw this was a "symphonic novel" about jazz, I was expecting a wild, radical, language romp in the spirit of, say, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo or Luis Rafael Sánchez's La guaracha del Macho Camacho. As it is, Vega Yunqué builds up to some fine climaxes and lyrical flourishes, but his elegant prose keeps the free jazz pallbearers at bay. On the Corner, if you will.
None of this matters though, because Bill Bailey has one of the most moving, disturbing, effective endings I've read in a long while: an extended and gruesomely detailed gang rape scene where it all collapses: the sermons, the jokes, the diatribes, the despair. I don't want to reveal the particulars, so I'll just say that, towards the end, the novel's grand political architecture crumbles in a mound of pain, irony, and death. Dutifully, Vega Yunqué tries to clean up the detritus of his deconstructed symphony by tacking on a "resolution" full of conciliatory sentiments, coming-to-terms, and new beginnings. But there's no getting around the bitter taste: once we've swallowed his hemlocked Kool Aid, we ain't never coming home again.
I doubt that I will ever read Bill Bailey again (it is too long and uneven) but I do recommend it. If you can stand its 600 + page length, its annoying sidetracks and flashbacks, its race sermons, and its reheated melodrama, it's definitely worth the while. Even if you can't, it's still worth it. This is a good novel, with flashes of wisdom and brilliance. It dares to up the ante on the Latino fiction crapshoot and it's willing to sing, like a mute-less trumpet, with the courage of its convictions. That's a lot right there. But with some healthy editing and a clearer focus, it could have been so much more.