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A photograph of Mama Chona and her grandson Miguel Angel-Miguel Chico or Mickie to his family-hovers above his head on the study wall beside the glass doors that open out into the garden. When Miguel Chico sits at his desk, he glances up at it occasionally without noticing it, looking through it rather than at it. It was taken in the early years of World War 11 by an old Mexican photographer who wandered up and down the border town's main street on the American side. No one knows how it found its way back to them, for Miguel Chico's grandmother never spoke to strangers. She and the child are walking hand in hand. Mama Chona is wearing a black ankle-length dress with a white lace collar and he is in a short-sleeved lightcolored summer suit with short pants. In the middle of the street life around them, they are looking straight ahead, intensely preoccupied, almost worried. They seem in a great hurry. Each has a foot off the ground, and Mama Chona's black hat with the three white daisies, their yellow centers like eyes that always out-stared him, is tilting backward just enough to be noticeable. Because of the look on his face, the child seems as old as the woman. The camera has captured them in flight from this world to the next.
Uncle Felix, Mama Chona's oldest surviving son, began calling the boy "Mickie" to distinguish him from his father Miguel Grande, a big man whose presence dominated all family gatherings even though he was Mama Chona's youngest son. Her name was Encarnacion Olmeca de Angel and she instructed everyone in the family to call her "Mama Grande" or "Mama Chona" and never, ever to address her as abuelita, the Spanish equivalent togranny. She was the only grandparent Miguel Chico knew. The others had died many years before he was born on the north side of the river, a second generation American citizen.
Thirty years later and far from the place of his birth, on his own deathbed at the university hospital, Miguel Chico, who had been away from it for twelve years, thought about his family and especially its sinners. Felix, his greataunt Cuca, his cousin Antony on his mothers—side all dead. Only his aunt Mema, the pariah of the family after it initially refused to accept her illegitimate son, was still alive. And so was his father, Miguel Grande, whose sins the family chose to ignore because it relied on him during all crises.
Miguel Chico knew that Mama Chona's family held contradictory feelings toward him. Because he was still not married and seldom visited them in the desert, they suspected that he, too, belonged on the list of sinners. Still, they were proud of his academic achievements. He had been the first in his generation to leave home immediately following high school after being admitted to a private and prestigious university before it was fashionable or expedient to accept students from his background.
Mama Chona did not live to see him receive his doctorate and fulfill her dream that a member of the Angel family become a university professor. On her deathbed, surrounded by her family, she recognized Miguel Chico and said, la familia, in an attempt to bring him back into the fold. Her look and her words gave him that lost, uneasy feeling he had whenever any of his younger cousins asked him why he had not married. Self-consciously, he would say, "Well, I had this operation," stop there, and let them guess at the rest.
Miguel Chico, after he survived, decided that others believed the thoughts and feelings of the dying to be more melodramatic than they were. In his own case, he had been too drugged to be fully aware of his condition. In the threemonth decline before the operation that would save his life, and as he grew thirstier every day, he longed to return to the desert of his childhood, not to the family but to the place. Without knowing it, he had been ill for a very long time. After suffering from a common bladder infection, he was treated with a medication that cured it but aggravated a deadly illness dormant since childhood though surfacing now and again in fits of fatigue and nausea.
"You didn't tell me you had a history of intestinal problems," the doctor said, leafing back through his chart.
"You didn't ask me," Miguel Chico replied. "And anyway, isn't it right there on the record?" He had lost ten pounds in two weeks and was beginning to throw up everything he ate.
"Well, I can't treat you for this now. I've cured your urinary infection. You'll have to go to a specialist at the clinic for the other. And stop taking the medication I prescribed for you." Later Mickie learned that no one with his history of intestinal illness ought to take the medication the doctor had prescribed. By then, it was too late.
He was allowed only spoonfuls of ice once every two hours and the desert was very much in his mouth, which was already parched by the drugs. Not at the time, but since, he has felt his godmother Nina's fear of being buried in the desert. Those chips of ice fed to him by his brother Raphael were grains of sand scratching down his throat. In the last weeks before surgery, as he lost control over his body, he floated in a perpetual dusk and, had it happened, would have died without knowing it, or would have thought it was happening to someone else.
There was one moment when he sensed he might not live. As the surgeon and anesthetist lifted him out of the gurney and onto the hard, cold table, each spoke quietly about what they were going to do. Mickie heard their voices, tender and kind, and was impressed by the way they touched him-as if he were a person in pain. He thought in those seconds that if theirs were the last voices he was to hear, that would be fine with him, for he longed to escape from the drugged and disembodied state of twilight in which he had lived for weeks. His uncle Felix had been murdered in such a twilight.
The doctors set him down and uncovered him. He weighed ninety-eight pounds and looked pregnant.
Posted July 15, 2008
'An old romantic Mexican ballad was playing on the jukebox now and reminded Felix of the days when he was courting Angie. As usual, the singer was suffering from love and Felix smiled at the sentimentality of the lyrics. 'Ay, Papa, how can you listen to such corny music?' the children asked him at home. He was not ashamed to admit that he loved all music. He and Angie had danced to this song shortly before they were married. After three beers, he sang along. 'Hey Felix,' asked the bartender, 'what does it mean?' 'You wouldn't understand you stupid gringo,' he said. To himself he thought how only a Mexican song could mix sadness and laughter like that so that one could cry and sing at the same time.' Set in a fictional Texas-Mexico border, this is the funny, sad, and outrageous tale of Mama Chona's children and grandchildren. The indomitable matriarch of the Angel clan who fled the bloody 1911 revolution for the land of promise in America. The story paints an unforgettable family portrait of souls haunted by ghosts and madness, lust, and dangerous desires. Here is a rich and poignant tale of outcasts struggling to live with dignity and to hold to their past while embracing an unsteady future.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 24, 2003
Posted May 20, 2000
Arturo Islas's ten-year search for a publisher for this novel reveals the sad tragedy of commercialism and racism in the literary world. White editors told him that his book was not 'authentic' enough: where were the gangs, the poverty, the struggle of barrio life? Islas, an authentic Mexican-American, stood firm for a decade until The Rain God was at last published, to the great joy of all its readers. In just over 200 pages, it chronicles three generations of a family living in a border town in Texas, and probes at the borders and divisions in all of our lives: parents vs. children, modern vs. traditional, gay vs. straight, human vs. supernatural, and body vs. soul. Surprisingly, all of this is done with great subtlety and flow; you must be an active reader to pick up on Islas's themes. It is the type of book you can reread half a dozen times (as I have) and see something new each time. It is profound, haunting, and filled with music. The Rain God is the greatest American novel since The Great Gatsby.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 4, 2012
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