Randy Lopez Goes Home by Ru­dolfo Anaya, Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa Press, 157 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Jen­nifer Levin

There is some­thing for ev­ery­one in Ru­dolfo Anaya’s new novel, and the more knowl­edge you have — about the Bi­ble, spir­i­tu­al­ity, New Mex­ico, the Span­ish lan­guage, the Day of the Dead, story struc­tures, and the hero’s jour­ney, just as a start — the faster you can con­nect to the book’s fleet­ing Earth-based re­al­ity. In the best

pos­si­ble sense, Randy Lopez Goes

Home is a high­school A.P. English as­sign­ment wait­ing to hap­pen. It can form the ba­sis of the sem­i­nal book-and-jour­nal as­sign­ment and ac­com­pa­ny­ing class dis­cus­sion that changes or even shapes the way we look at the world be­cause it makes us de­velop opin­ions on the im­por­tant stuff that wakes adults up in the mid­dle of the night: life, death, love, lone­li­ness, the past, the fu­ture, alien­ation, be­long­ing, and whether or not e-books are re­ally all that pop­u­lar with the youth.

Af­ter liv­ing among the grin­gos for many years, Randy Lopez rides a mule into his home­town of Agua Ben­dita, New Mex­ico, on the Day of the Dead. He en­coun­ters a se­ries of char­ac­ters — all of whom tell him that grin­gos are called An­g­los now — who talk to him about life, of­ten speak­ing in in­verted clichés and oblique riddles and rhymes. Randy is age­less and the town is time­less; how long has he been gone? Agua Ben­dita has been re­named Hot Springs to be more tourist­friendly, and no one re­mem­bers Randy — not his for­mer class­mates, not his god­par­ents, not even his old teacher, the one who gave him his An­glo name be­cause she couldn’t pro­nounce the three saints he was named af­ter. Things have changed in Agua Ben­dita; ev­ery­thing is in dis­re­pair, and there is no meat in town, only pota­toes. The Devil and Death cross-dress and ca­vort, and Death, or La Muerte, is re­ferred to in a chap­ter ti­tle as “the old bitch.” Randy be­comes in­creas­ingly in­vested in find­ing his child­hood sweet­heart, Sofia of the Lambs, who lives across the river and, le­gend has it, lost her vir­gin­ity three times.

Anaya’s prose is sprin­kled with Span­ish, and he flows be­tween lyri­cism and plainer speech. No quo­ta­tion marks are used around di­a­logue, but who is speak­ing or whether they are speak­ing aloud de­creases in im­por­tance the deeper you delve into the story. There is a host of themes at work, but iden­tity grows in im­por­tance; Randy strug­gles with who he was then ver­sus who he has be­come, while Agua Ben­dita is hav­ing the op­po­site strug­gle. When Miss Lib­ri­ana, the teacher who gave Randy his name, re­veals that Randy is the name of her dead son, he asks him­self whether his name mat­ters. “One would not call a rose by any other name. Call a rose a sun­flower and it would protest. And vice-versa. Once the name was given, it be­came iden­tity and pride. Nam­ing was sa­cred. In the end, the name is in­scribed on the tomb­stone.”

Anaya tack­les some tough po­lit­i­cal sub­jects, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on im­mi­gra­tion. When Randy leads a group of Mex­i­can la­bor­ers in a build­ing pro­ject, the lo­cal peo­ple threaten to de­port them, but Unica, the old woman who walks by the river, says that no hu­man is il­le­gal, that we are all equal in God’s eyes. “Bound­aries that sep­a­rate na­tions are cre­ated by men ... Je­sus will come to erase all borders,” she says.

In an au­thor’s note at the end of the book, Anaya states un­equiv­o­cally that Randy Lopez is dead and what pre­ceded is the story of his af­ter­life. He is not try­ing to sur­prise his read­ers; he ob­vi­ously in­tended this to be clear from the out­set. Though there were sev­eral points at which I ques­tioned whether per­haps Randy was sup­posed to be dead, I did not read his tale this way as a whole. In­stead, I saw the pos­si­bil­ity that this was his af­ter­life — pur­ga­tory, per­haps — as a sym­bol for im­per­ma­nence and the sad truth that what we think is real rarely is. The beauty of Randy Lopez Goes Home is that miss­ing this seem­ingly vi­tal bit of in­for­ma­tion didn’t make the ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing the story non­sen­si­cal, and dis­cov­er­ing it af­ter the fact en­larged the scope of what I’d read. I didn’t feel stupid — or worse, hood­winked — for not pick­ing up on it. The story, af­ter all, is filled with ghosts, but how you see the ghosts will de­pend on your per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and in­di­vid­ual knowl­edge base, and dis­cussing the book with peo­ple from di­verse back­grounds will no doubt un­cover ever more nu­ances and mean­ing.

Randy’s old neigh­bor Ma­belline asks him if it’s so bad that he changed among the grin­gos. “I guess it’s a kind of trans­for­ma­tion,” he an­swers. “But some­times I felt like I didn’t have a choice. Like I had to learn a new way of be­ing. And deep in­side it wasn’t me. ... I was will­ing to learn. But I had to give up the lan­guage of my an­ces­tors and my his­tory. I felt like I knew the Oth­ers, but they re­ally didn’t know me.”

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