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