The Bonjour Gene

"The Bonjour Gene"

By J.A. Marzán


Reviewed by Kjerstin Pugh


Hot off the University of Wisconsin Presses is J.A. Marzan's The Bonjour Gene -- a story that revolves around the French-descended, Puerto Rican family called Bonjour. Each family member carries with him or her the legacy of the chronic promiscuity of every Bonjour male. Communities in both Puerto Rico and New York City (boroughs included) are also forced to accept the growing populations of illegitimate Bonjour children. Mothers fear their Bonjour child will unknowingly fall in love with another Bonjour. The anxiety of this rampant wantonness is reiterated throughout the book from beginning to end, so that there is no doubt in the reader's mind that the gene is that of licentiousness and irresponsible lust. 


Unexpectedly, Marzán does not spend time with Bonjour seduction, but rather its outcome: jealous wives, jealous mistresses, illegitimate children, child support, and the emotional abuse and neglect of all involved. This is not the obvious road for Marzán to take; readers are by nature voyeuristic and oftentimes enjoy a good seduction and some good sex. Yet he chooses to relate solely the consequences of these actions, which he accomplishes with compelling stories and descriptions, while, in addition, proving himself a responsible author who deals with serious social issues. 


The Bonjour Gene is also captivating in how, in only 166 pages, it documents the different experiences of modern Puerto Ricans and their various struggles with family, identity, pride, and life itself. The Bonjour family is so branched out that the living family members are of all different ages, races, classes, languages, and geographies. While the author cannot bridge the gap between the commonwealth and the nation, his characters must still deal with it, granted, some more than others. What appears to hold the Bonjours back is each other. Mothers raise their children on a short leash, restricting their activities and personal growth. For instance, a twenty-something, illegitimate Bonjour daughter, born and raised in Brooklyn, has never been to El Barrio. Her mother has always distrusted the neighborhood, resulting in her daughter's repressed curiosity. When the daughter finally visits the area, she does so in secret, feeling stealthy and guilty for simply going uptown!


The novel opens at a funeral for a Bonjour who had abandoned his middle class family for a girl with whom he became involved in drugs, and for which he was subsequently murdered. From there, the story travels to the accounts of the man's sons and eventually his mother, as well as other, sometimes-distant family members, who all hear about the murder in some way.


The first chapters are the most direct about the problems, specifically within the Latin community, with assimilation and class. Vincent, the son of the murdered Bonjour, is lost, in search of a Latin identity that has been forfeited by a "white," middle-class childhood. He conveys this to a fellow Latin student he has a crush on: "I just thought you saw me as some assimilated guy from Riverdale, and I wanted to get close to you. I was ashamed I couldn't speak Spanish fluently." However, he quickly learns that it is too late. Vincent is who he is: "Today he learned from Magda that being this thing 'Puerto Rican' meant really being from nowhere, running around this maze, carrying his mother's sugar condition and his father's horny gene -- and his abuela's darker skin."


From Vincent on, the chapters bounce from the brief tales of one Bonjour to another. These characters range in age, gender, race, geographic location, and socioeconomic status. Thus, each Bonjour has a different opinion about and experience with society and where he or she fits in. In retrospect, all of the characters appear to be passive about their fates. It is hard to tell whether or not it's the narrative distance or the characters' personalities, but everyone involved accepts the gene's actions and repercussions. The women in particular resent, yet accept, the men's bad behavior. The general attitude towards the gene is "boys will be boys," which I find hard to accept. It is surprising that out of all the different characters, not one of the women would resist the philandering men; and that, when a woman finds herself an abandoned mother, she does not raise some major hell. Mothers allow their children to idolize their absent fathers and let the men walk into their lives after months or years of absence and little to no child support.


Despite Marzán's often long and confusing sentences, his noteworthy characters and plots balance the book. What would help clarify the novel, however, would be for the publisher to have included a Bonjour family tree. When returning to the novel, it is difficult to remember who each character is and how they are related to one another. It is like reading One Hundred Years of Solitude without a guide. Marzán never judges or preaches on what it means to be Puerto Rican. Rather, he gives examples of his characters' various identities as a sample of who some modern Puerto Ricans are. For such a short book, The Bonjour Gene has an amazingly broad range of cultural viewpoints, from the regretful assimilator to the Latina apprehensive of El Barrio -- quite the accomplishment.