Kevin A. González, “The Jayuya Uprising” (American Short Fiction, Spring 2018)
Kevin A. González, “The Jayuya Uprising” (American Short Fiction 66 Spring 2018, pp. 81–129)
I couldn’t stop reading the fifty-page novella “The Jayuya Uprising,” by Kevin A. González, published in American Short Fiction 66. (I recently reviewed a masterful flash fiction piece from the same number of ASF.) Back in 2009, I reviewed a story by González: “Lotería.” I liked it and looked forward to reading more of González’s fiction. I hadn’t bumped into any since then, though, until “The Jayuya Uprising.”
The story centers around a Catholic, school-mandated retreat in Jayuya. This is a town perched in the mountainous center of Puerto Rico. The narrator brings out the town’s nationalist credentials constantly, remembering the 1950 insurrection led by Blanca Canales ("the first and only woman to lead an armed revolt against the United States" [p. 83]).
The narrator is Héctor Manual Acosta (the third, since his father and his grandfather bear the same name) (p. 125). His nemesis is Picky Perelló, a dissolute, cocky, Porsche-driving teenager from a wealthy family. He is the son of a statehood senator and, as the narrator reminds us as often enough as it hurts him to think about it, he has a large penis. (His name is eerily similar to that of the current governor of Puerto Rico, Ricky Rosselló.)
The narrator is in love with Camille, the daughter of a history teacher at the pricy San José school where both the narrator and Picky go to school. Camille is also the daughter of Pucho, a rugged man who trains fight dogs. There is a long scene in which the narrator accompanies Pucho to a dog fight to witness Pucho’s champion, Bazooka, clash against a dog from New Orleans. There are nationalist undertones around this fight, down to Bazooka entering the scene wearing the flag of Puerto Rico.
The strongest quality of “The Jayuya Uprising” is its pace. It speeds along, stoked by the cauldron of the narrator’s hormones and multiple levels of troubles. Héctor’s life at home is troubled: his parents got divorced and his father gave up his law practice, which led the narrator’s paternal grandfather to disinherit his own son a few days before he died—in favor of the narrator. Inheriting his grandfather’s fortune leads the narrator’s father to stop talking to him.
Héctor’s school life is also troubled: his beloved Camille is now dating his nemesis, Picky. And he has a life’s worth of resentments built up around him: people he can’t talk to, people who avoid him. His one close friend is bound to him by a common interest in drugs.
The retreat is spiritual and fond of confession and moments of introspection. Héctor hates it and uses every opportunity to mock what people are doing and, as he sees it, the silliness of their beliefs. Some quips are funny, such as describing the Virgin Mary’s outstretched hands as a card dealer’s hands. But what loses out in the end is not religion, but Héctor’s rabid take on religion. We see that Héctor’s own problems keep him from participating in experiences that others do find transformative and that the brothers who run the retreat are genuinely committed to.
All in all, worth reading. Now comes the part that threw me off throughout the piece: the handling of Spanish. I’ve commented on this before, since this is a problem in every Junot Díaz story I’ve read. How do English speakers who lack Spanish deal with passages like these?
— “I wanted to pat my pockets and feed him the same line I’d feed a tecato panhandling at a traffic light. Mala mía, pai. Estoy pelao” (p. 109).
— “Outside the ring, arms were flailing all around; everyone was screaming que si coño y puñeta y dale maricón” (p. 114).
Are readers meant to assume that something relevant has been said, trust the author, and keep reading? Say you want to make an effort and look up the unknown words in a dictionary: “pai” is certainly not in any major dictionary. And getting the sense goes beyond the dictionary, especially with this kind of regional slang.
Not only that, but the copyediting, which has done a good job in English in the novella as a whole, misses key things in the snippets of Spanish slipped into the story: leaving aside the opening question and exclamation marks, which are required in Spanish, accent marks are just off. Take “Tu puedes mucho más!” (p. 87): the first word there should be “Tú.” And “Dále” and “Dáme” (p. 91) are never written with an accent. The same goes for “títeritos” (p. 127).
Why bother with this kind of Spanish at all? Why not curse in English, instead of littering the text with “coño” and “puñeta” and “cabrón” (e.g., p. 104)? The real bold move would be to have the dialogues in Spanish, but that would lose a lot of readers along the way. I’ve said before that if, say, Tagalog were interspersed in a story as much as Spanish is in this novella or in Junot Díaz’s stories, I would probably lose interest quickly.
Having said that, “The Jayuya Uprising” is decisively readable and it spools you into the emotions and struggles of the narrator. I’ll close with this take on Puerto Rico, which stands out in the narrative: “And this is the thing about our island: You leave your private school, you leave your gated complex, you take a right at the McDonald’s, go six blocks, take another right at the McDonald’s, and all of a sudden, you’re in a different island. At your house, the sprinklers sweep the lawn, discharging water like toy guns, but here, you can turn the faucet all day long and all you get is a callus on your thumb. Here, there are dogs being trained to fight on rooftops, there are fathers tugging leashes and mothers wearing blindfolds and daughters whose milk is coming in” (p. 94).