31 May 2009

The Comeback

Edgardo Vega Yunqué: 1936–2008

When Edgardo Vega Yunqué died last year, the Times ran a couple of eulogies on its website. He was described with quaint admiration—a local writer who found his inspiration in the Lower East Side. Many who knew him, however, posted less-than-fond memories to the website. “Ed Vega was a bully and egotistical,” one reader commented. “He hurt people. He was cruel and sadistic,” wrote another. Posthumous insults are usually directed toward the rich and famous, and Vega was neither. He wrote seventeen books, only six of which were ever published. Just months before he died, at the age of 72, he was so low on cash that he gave up his apartment in Sunset Park for a tiny room—so tiny, in fact, that he euthanized his cat before he moved. His new living quarters would be too cramped for both of them. It’s hard to imagine what could have elicited such lingering hostility toward an old, washed-up writer with a dead cat.

Vega is a grouchy writer; his tone is stubborn and combative. “Sometimes there are bad jokes and some of the people are stereotypes,” he writes in the introduction to his first novel, The Comeback. “So what! I didn’t write the damned thing to win a Nobel Prize for Literature or get a book award . . . I wrote it because I felt like it.” He frequently interrupts the narrative to offer quips and lengthier diatribes on grudges ranging from Harry Potter (“pabulum for toothless adults”) to US foreign relations (Americans “can only learn geography by bombing places”). 

Vega takes little interest in the fusty distinction between fiction and memoir. There are few moments in his novels in which his personality doesn’t break through. He is a skilled sweet-talker—playful, yet insistent—and his humor is so flirtatiously self-deprecating that you find yourself obliged to listen. His plots brim with characters: Puerto Rican witches who mutate into squirrels, evangelizing psychiatrists with names like Helen Christianpath, a depressed circus clown whose body whistles when aroused. But you always hear Vega buried in their remarks; if he’s disguised, it’s only halfheartedly.

Vega’s writing is at turns slapstick and philosophical. Occasionally he combines these two effects—you could classify many of his novels as satire, if you had to—but more commonly, his humor and his ruminations sound like two dissonant cries blaring at equal volume. In his last public interview, Vega told the Brooklyn Rail, “The United States has devolved into a binary society when it comes to fiction. Fiction now has become only entertainment; the novel of ideas has been relegated to the elite.” Vega embraces this binary in order to defeat it. His novels are fast-paced and delightful, the type you finish on the train ride to work; there’s a tumbling effortlessness to his prose. Likewise, you find thoughtful meditations about the state of Latin American literature, race, and gentrification.  The cacophony of Vega’s novels only accentuates their autobiographical quality; the dissonant styles expose not just coarse facts of his life, but all of his self-contradictions.


Vega was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York City when he was 13 years old. His father was a Baptist minister called to New York to lead a Spanish-speaking congregation in the Bronx. The family settled into Mott Haven, a predominantly Irish neighborhood at the time. Vega played for the neighborhood hockey team, which changed its name from the “Shamrocks” to the “Rebels” to accommodate the new Puerto Rican player. After high school, he joined the Air Force, which sent him to Greece. Upon discharge, he returned to New York and never really left. He went to New York University. He taught at a community college in the Bronx and at the New School; he moved to el Barrio (Spanish Harlem), and later to Brooklyn.

It’s unclear how often Vega returned to Puerto Rico as an adult. When he appears as a character at the end of The Comeback, he says, “I haven’t been back to the Island in nearly ten years. It makes me sick to go there.” This might be posturing, but in his books he paints Puerto Rico as such a mythical place that the reality must have been disappointing. Almost all the Puerto Rican characters in his novels come from the invented town of Cacimar. Usually Cacimar is in the mountains, though sometimes it’s by the sea. When the town appears in Mendoza’s Dreams, it is a place famed for its chastity, where women reach their early twenties uncertain where babies come from. The town is always the type of place that could only exist on paper.

Vega depicts New York, on the other hand, with lawyerly precision. “Technically, Allen Street is on the Lower East Side, since it is the southern extension of First Avenue after it crosses Houston Street,” he writes in the opening paragraph of The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisada Jungle (2004). “The East Village esthetic, however, has seeped across Houston by two more blocks to Delancey Street.” The novel tells the story of Omaha Bigelow, an aging punk guitarist who loiters around the streets near NYU as if his youth might return by osmosis. One evening, Bigelow meets Maruquita, a 15-year-old Puerto Rican from the projects on Avenue D. Maruquita is a bruja, or witch, and comes from a long line of magical women. Her grandmother has launched a counterattack on gentrification, turning gringos into pigeons; her mother is one of the chosen few who can perform penis-enlargement ceremonies, a service she provides Omaha with great results. The Nuyoricans of the Lower East Side, or Loisaida as it’s known in Spanglish, live on their own Island of Enchantment. They’ve pooled funds to build a Navy, and when they need a break there are portals in the housing projects to the Island’s finest beaches (”‘Why you think we so tan even in the winter?’”).

“But this is some weird shit, Papa,” Maruquita complains to Vega, the writer. “It’s like some kind of derivative Gabriel García Márquez magical-realism crap.” The freezing city and its fantastical Puerto Rican population does sound suspiciously like magical realism. Vega, however, is squeamish about the genre: it’s too predictable, too categorically Latin American. “As a Latin American writer, I’m expected to dabble in magical realism,” he once wrote. There’s nothing Vega despises quite as much as the expected. (He sometimes rails against a literary society where “readers and critics [are] trying to write the book for the author.”) So instead, he writes in English, his second language, and takes a few lighthearted jabs at the old canon.

While Vega regards magical realism with distant appreciation (“Let’s say I’m paying homage to a tradition,” he says, in response to Maruquita), he refers to something he calls “ghetto literature” with utter disdain. “I’d suppose you rather have me write some degrading, icky . . . spidery, mean-street, ghetto novel, right?” he asks his disobedient characters. There are a lot of stories about urban poverty out there, too many to be heaped together in one genre. Which is exactly Vega’s point: “ghetto writing,” as the term suggests, not only creates stereotypes, it also conflates them—each minority group as violent and poor as the next, all facing the same characteristically urban problems. In most New York stories—whether set in the private schools on the Upper East Side or the projects in Loisada—the city itself serves as the protagonist. You can love it or hate it, succumb to its charms, or fall prey to its challenges, but it’s the city, always, that’s in control. Vega describes New York with loving precision, but the city of his novels is just a setting, grounds for his characters, magical or not, to stomp on. Plenty of people from the projects appear in Vega’s novels, but their struggles, for the most part, are against one another, not some cruel urban force.

Vega is convinced that these two genres, magical realism and the “ghetto novel,” are the only recognizable canons of contemporary US-Latino literature, and he spends a good part of Omaha Bigelow working out this theory. He’s so caught up in the topic that sometimes it seems as if character and plot are of secondary concern. “If I don’t do this,” he says, apologizing to the reader about the distracted nature of the novel, “people are going to think that we’re stupid and can only write dopey books, and we’ll never be free.” The newly famed Roberto Bolaño (who once said magical realism “stinks”) has been applauded, in part, for all that he’s not: he’s described as “post-nationalist” and one critic praised his work as “neither magical realism, nor baroque nor localist.” Vega, in turn, often seems more dedicated to separating himself from narrative conventions than developing a style of his own.

Vega’s bouts of political urgency can be a bit hard to accept. For a writer with such bravado, who’s so clearly pleased by his own observations, it’s hard to take his gallantries (“If I don’t do this …  we’ll never be free”) at face value. Vega scoffs at most literary categories but in the case of politics, he’s quite territorial, standing proudly in the “political” camp and gesturing crudely at those on the other side. Vega, however, is a more humble revolutionary than his battle cries might suggest. The endings of both The Comeback and Omaha Bigelow follow the same formula: after a sprint-paced finale—full of abductions, police chases, and people transforming into monkeys—Vega milks the last few pages to speak candidly to his Puerto Rican heroines and argue his case for the island’s independence. He tells Maruquita the witch, “I am a Puerto Rican; not a Puerto Rican-American . . . I was already a citizen without choosing to be one.” Vega inevitably wins the argument, but his fictional counterpart always makes valid points. He’s not so much pamphleteering as wrestling with his own ideas.


Vega’s great love for New York City was in large part unrequited. His first three books, The Comeback, Casualty Report, and Mendoza’s Dreams, were ignored by New York presses and acquired by Arte Público in Houston. His commercial success finally came in 2003, when Vega was 66 and FSG published No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew it Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again: A Symphonic Novel. It’s a laborious title and a hardworking book to match—over six-hundred pages long, it took more than sixteen years to complete. The book won great praise: the Times called it a “powerhouse of a novel,” and the Washington Post named it one of the most notable books of the year. Vega continued to write and publish—Omaha Bigelow (2004) and Blood Fugues (2006)—but never to the same acclaim. Months before his death, Overlook cancelled the contract for Vega’s final book, Rebecca Horowitz, Puerto Rican Sex Freak.

At the center of Bill Bailey is Vidamía Farrell, a young woman so compassionate and enterprising that just reading about her will make you nice to people for days. She’s raised in the suburbs by her Puerto Rican mother, Elsa Santiago, a social-climbing psychiatrist, and her stepfather Barry, a Puerto Rican real estate mogul. At 12, Vidamía decides that she wants to meet her biological father, which she accomplishes with remarkable ease (she takes the commuter train to Harlem, where she meets a cop who just happens to know her paternal grandmother). Her real father turns out to be Bill Farrell, an Irish-American who lives in a loft on the Lower East Side with his wife Lurleen and their four children. The family, like an urban version of the Partridges, plays jazz in subway stations. Billy, we learn, was once a jazz pianist who played with some of the greats. During the Vietnam War, though, he lost two fingers on his right hand, destroying his musical aspirations. Vidamía loves her father and is determined to see him play again. But, as suggested by the title, things don’t go so well for Billy Farrell. Towards the end of the novel, there’s violence of almost unreadable proportions. Vega describes the scene with the exhilarated yet detailed pacing of an embedded reporter; his personality, for once, is nowhere to be found.

That scene aside, Bill Bailey is a warm-hearted, almost sentimental novel. The book takes its structural cues from jazz. Vega departs from the plot line with longwinded narratives about his characters, like a series of solos spinning out from the melody. They come from Dixieland, Loisada, and out West—Vega makes every person so immediately likable, you start thinking that maybe he wasn’t a misanthrope after all. Bill Bailey is a freeform ode to New York, capturing the city and its polyphony of voices.  “What I hear is what I write down,” Vega once said.

At times you can still make out Vega in the words of his characters. He might be masked by a different accent, but he’s pondering all of his usual subjects—as in this conversation about the term “people of color” between Vidamía and her boyfriend Wyndell, who’s black:

“Vee, a colored person and a person of color are not the same thing,” he said.
“Well you could have fooled me. It sure sounds like the same thing to me.”
“It isn’t the same. It’s a way for all nonwhite people to unite against racism.”
“Well, Puerto Ricans have all kinds of different people so what you’re saying is that because blacks in the United States were oppressed, all other people who aren’t from Europe have to adapt to this misguided black agenda, this people-of-color crap? I’m not going to deny that P.R.s have been oppressed, but it’s a little more complex than just color.”

The phrase, “people of color,” is central to the history of the novel. Vega had a contract for the book with another publisher, but pulled out after he saw publicity materials bearing this very phrase. “You bought this book as a work of literature, and you are trying to ghettoize it,” Vega told his publishers. Even for the most sympathetic of readers, the conversation runs a bit long. But with Vega, every experience, every thought, is immediately and psychologically available; it’s this intimacy that makes his work so compelling.

In Bill Bailey, there are fewer opportunities for explicit, first-person commentaries than in Vega’s other books (though he does still manage to make space for a shout out to his stepdaughter, the singer Suzanne Vega). There are, however, plenty of shrouded interjections. At the end of the book, for instance, Vega tries to wrap up everything on a note of inspiration. In the wake of the horrors that have just passed, this can’t help but feel forced; he’s so eager to get to his own conclusions that he can’t take a moment to show his characters reacting for themselves. Also, Vega dedicates Bill Bailey to his “women ancestors” and the story focuses on a number of powerful female characters. But why, if he’s trying to evoke a sense of women’s power, do nearly all of the heroines—Vidamía, Cookie, and Elsa—adhere to such normative notions of feminine beauty? They’re each told, at least once in the course of the novel, that they’re so pretty, so thin, that they should really “consider modeling.” It’s not hard to pick out whose voice is responsible for that.


Vega is both obnoxious and lovable. So consummate is his wrath, so baseless many of his opinions, that any reader is bound to have bones to pick. I don’t think Harry Potter is “pabulum.” And I find Vega’s concept of “political writing” severely lacking in nuance—it’s like he’s covering himself in bumper-stickers. But there’s an endearing frankness to his writing, made possible by a certain lack of regard for others. The ideas that occasion his winks and asides are so personal that they do just the opposite of most self-conscious writing—they make his books more engaging. Vega strikes such an intimate tone that, even at his most dogmatic, he still reads like a friend talking over a beer. It’s talk filled with drunken-sounding absurdities: a nurse goes through puberty at the age of six, a nun turns out to be part-mermaid, a Kinko’s manager tries to restructure his branch as a socialist collective. In a beautiful essay about Vega and his work, David Gonzalez, a friend and a fellow New York writer, wrote: “over the three decades of our friendship, we never exchanged a single word in anger. Granted, I never edited him.”

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