Growing Through Ugly' - posthumous lyrics

February 09, 1997|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff

'Growing Through the Ugly,' by Diego Vasquez Jr. Norton. 224 pages. $21.

An aspiring writer once submitted a short story for the perusal of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The novice promised the old master a fantastic tale about a severed head that talks. To which Singer answered: "Isn't it amazing enough that a head which is not cut off can talk?"

For Diego Vasquez Jr., like so many of his brethren in the lush fields of Chicano literature, it is not enough. And it can be wearisome.

In this debut novel by Vasquez, something mystical falls down with every dusting of cayenne pepper; poetry breaks out whenever someone gets drunk or peeps through a forbidden window; and the only thing more abundant than rueful tears is Spanish, which interrupts the narrative far too often for even a reader, like me, with a poor but passing knowledge of the language.

Of a mother for whom his young protagonist yearns but will never know, Vasquez writes: "Her breath will be from the heart of a strawberry."

To paraphrase Cervantes, Vasquez will grind your soul in a mill of lyricism.

This is the tale of a half-Chicano, half-Polish and All-American orphan in the 1960s border town of El Paso, a Little League sissy who can't hit on game days and bears the improbable name of Buzzy Digit.

Buzzy likes to wear his cousin Rosemary's underwear, likes even better what "La Red" fills them with, and has many opportunities in which to savor the pulsing heart of the strawberry.

The book is narrated from the grave by Buzzy, a soldier who gets killedin Vietnam sometime after his 16th birthday. He hoped to escape El Paso, do great things, and return home a hero.

Instead, he comes home in a box and starts telling his story from the age of 6, the moment when his mother suckles Buzzy for the last time before abandoning him to the care of his beloved grandmother and her yellow house known as the canary cage.

Over the next 10 years, strange and wonderful things happen - holocausts and miracles takes turns occurring on the half-hour - but too much is simply tossed out with the expectation that we'll take Buzzy's word for it.

It was a thrill when Buzzy and three of his adolescent friends sneak up to the presidential suite to meet John F. Kennedy when the doomed president visits El Paso. Why did Vasquez ruin the fairy tale with a blond bombshell masquerading as a nurse - mere verifiable history - visiting JFK's room?

The grandiose, childish, and very sensitive Buzzy has a good story to tell.

But to my ear, there is something very wrong with the way Vasquez spins it. It's like a favorite record, perhaps "96 Tears" by the legendary Chicano band, ? and the Mysterians. The record skips but you sit and wait in the hope that the problem will work itself out.

It doesn't.

Rafael Alvarez has been a reporter in Baltimore for the past 20 years, most of them with The Sun. His fiction has appeared in literary journals throughout the United States.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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