The King and Queen of Comezón by Denise Chávez, Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa Press, 309 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Casey Sanchez

South of Las Cruces, in a bor­der town as raunchy as it is bro­ken­hearted, the res­i­dents of Comezón, New Mex­ico, live at what the town’s es­tranged priest calls “the flaming, itch­ing culo of the uni­verse.” The King and Queen of Comezón is a panoramic por­trait of South­ern New Mex­ico per­son­al­i­ties — un­apolo­get­i­cally soaked in Span­glish, earnest and gritty as a town gossip air­ing a neigh­bor’s dirty laun­dry.

Comezón trans­lates as an itch but also sug­gests un­sat­is­fied long­ings and anx­i­eties that come to dwell in the mind and per­sist there for decades. You won’t find the town of the same name on any New Mex­ico map, but the fic­tional vil­lage faith­fully evokes a small town in Doña Ana County. Au­thor Denise Chávez, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the an­nual Bor­der Book Fes­ti­val in Las Cruces and au­thor of the cult Chi­cano-lit hit Loving Pe­dro In­fante, was born and raised in the county.

The nar­ra­tive — book­ended be­tween Cinco de Mayo and Mex­i­can In­de­pen­dence Day in mid-Septem­ber — uses jokes, dreams, scan­dals, and fam­ily se­crets to make a sharp, comic por­trait of the man­ner in which his­tory and fam­i­lies im­print them­selves on peo­ple who thought they’d de­vised ways to es­cape their clutches. What hap­pens in a place like Comezón stays for­ever in a place like Comezón.

As the cen­ter of the story is the town’s long­time master of cer­e­monies, Ar­nulfo Olivárez, a sweaty, boast­ful pa­tri­arch who never met a pair of riv­eted mari­achi pants his belly couldn’t bust through. He is both a preen­ing boor, who refers to Emilia, his wife of sev­eral decades, as “La Gorda,” and an im­pas­sioned man whose cease­less and anx­ious bab­bling in­ad­ver­tently spills over with po­etry. The long-suf­fer­ing Emilia kindly weath­ers her hus­band’s ac­cu­sa­tions that her hot flashes dur­ing preg­nancy left their only biological daugh­ter, Ju­liana, crip­pled for life. Qui­etly, and with­out com­plaint, Emilia also raises Lucinda, the daugh­ter of Ar­nulfo and the fam­ily maid, as if she were her own.

Good suit­ors elude twenty-some­thing Ju­liana and Lucinda. Lucinda be­comes a bomb­shell Cinco de Mayo queen. She elopes to White Sands on the night of her corona­tion — a tiara still in her hair — with the town sher­iff’s sleazy son. Wheel­chair-bound Ju­liana spends her young adult life in her par­ents’ house, ex­plor­ing the out­side world through an in­tense de­vo­tion to paint­ing, pray­ing, and read­ing. Blessed with a naive and un­flag­gingly pos­i­tive spirit, she fails to un­der­stand why most town res­i­dents pity her for her grossly de­formed legs, just as she strug­gles to fathom why the town’s priest be­comes so quickly in­flamed by her per­fectly formed breasts dur­ing their pri­vate cat­e­chism ses­sions.

Chávez is long on bor­der-cul­ture at­mos­phere, of­fer­ing a plot that is a rit­u­al­is­tic ac­count of a small-town sum­mer: hid­den love, early death, im­mi­grant loss, and the un­end­ing anx­i­ety of pre­serv­ing a fam­ily’s name, iden­tity, and honor. She has a spe­cial ca­pac­ity for thread­ing te­len­ov­ela vul­gar­ity into what is es­sen­tially a por­trait of New Mex­ico vil­lage quirk­i­ness. Here she is de­scrib­ing the smell of the town’s bar, El Mil Re­cuer­dos: “a cross be­tween booze and per­fume, cheap af­ter­shave and al­ter­nat­ing hot and cold piss, horny men and hornier women on and off the prover­bial gara. It was the smell of se­men, old farts, moldy dust, and red en­chi­ladas with an egg on top, over medium, New Mex­ico style.”

Through her char­ac­ters, Chávez finds time to ad­dress the lit­tle-known so­cio­cul­tural ri­valry be­tween South­ern and North­ern New Mex­ico. This is Ar­nulfo lament­ing his wife’s roots among pi­ous san­teros of Truchas: “They were coun­try peo­ple from the dark­est re­cesses of New Mex­ico, those lit­tle land­locked north­ern vil­lages in the moun­tains where peo­ple clumped to­gether to keep warm on those cold win­ter nights and then be­gat off­spring with lit­tle tails or webbed toes and ex­tra ribs. ... They were fear­ful of so many things and dis­dained company. ... and they had THAT LOOK, which iso­lated them even fur­ther, as they didn’t know or care much about the real world. They were, in short, artists.”

By the book’s con­clu­sion, Chávez has un­earthed her char­ac­ters’ flaws and pas­sions while com­plet­ing a por­trait of life in South­ern New Mex­ico that is pitch per­fect. Most of the book’s char­ac­ters seem ei­ther on the verge of adult­hood or on the cusp of se­nil­ity, show­cas­ing the au­thor’s hu­man­is­tic im­pe­tus to re­veal the mul­ti­tude of ways in which our bod­ies are im­per­fect ves­sels for con­tain­ing our dreams and ex­press­ing our de­sires.

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