ARIZONA-BORN ALFREDO Véa's third novel, Gods Go Begging, should prove to be his break-out achievement. Véa is already well-recognized by the inclusion on numerous Chicano literature reading lists and course syllabi for his first, Phoenix novel, La Maravilla. In Gods Go Begging, he has conceived a work so ambitious thematically and stylistically, and so timely in its interests, that it surely deserves a broad readership.
Jesse Pasadoble, San Francisco public defender and Vietnam vet, is an aptly (even wittily) named hero. The double murder in the gangsterized ghetto on Potrero Hill of two women -- one black, one Vietnamese -- dances Pasadoble not only into a passionate crime, but also into his wartime past. The motif of doubling is maintained throughout the book in the cast of characters, in the shifting storyline, in the sub-plot of the white supremacist falsely accused of child sexual abuse, even in the structure of the individual chapters. If the hand of Fate may seem too heavy in this machinery of interior reference and reflection, the aesthetic satisfaction it brings will bear favorable comparison to the rising tension accomplished in Catch 22's tightening spiral structure. Indeed, one comic chapter of biting satire, in which a terrified and disillusioned padre is dressed down and then sent back into combat by his liquor-swilling, behind-the-lines superior officer in the chaplain corps, seems explicitly to invite that comparison.
The crime on Potrero Hill is the culmination for Pasadoble, and others in Gods Go Begging, of a violent incident years earlier on a contested hill in the Vietnamese highlands. The settings and occurrences on both are vividly, even brilliantly, described. The circumstantial logic which joins the events is not causal so much as it is coincidental, and perhaps some will account for this as the pervasive influence of "magical realism" on Véa's writing. That is certainly there, for example in a long, philosophical sequence in which the deserting chaplain -- who later reappears as a homeless man in San Francisco -- drifts sick and delirious down the Mekong River in an ultimate escape into oblivion.
However, the relentless forward momentum which reunites the main characters, as either victims or avengers, across the dual divide of 30 years and the Pacific Ocean, results from individual habits of the heart, not coincidence and authorial sleight of hand. Both Véa's hilltop outposts are absolutely damned, but just as absolutely they are redeemed, by the human qualities of perseverance and optimism which are called in the case of the murdered women, "wanting too much."
Jesse Pasadoble is said to have been lucky in Vietnam: "All that had been amputated was his ability to give or receive love." His power as a storyteller kept him sane during the war, when he was a master at the grunts' foxhole game called "supposing," in which alternative histories result from imagined transpositions: "Suppose the wind had been blowing just right back in the 16th and 17th centuries...Just imagine what would have happened if Hernán Cortez and his men had been blown far off course and landed at Plymouth Rock instead of Veracruz. On the other hand, imagine that the pilgrims had been blown south by a terrific gale and the Mayflower had run aground in the Yucatán peninsula." Charmingly, we end up with Tecate bottles left behind on the moon.
In the present, Jesse drinks acidic coffee in the basement of the courthouse with other public defenders, and the embattled game is now called "I once had this guy," the telling of stories about former clients who epitomize criminal stupidity and brutality. In this underground world of jailhouse violence, Jesse considers that "The end of desire was a greater tragedy than the end of life itself." Drink and dreams are his demons.
Assigned to defend Biscuit Boy, the homeboy accused of the murder of Mai and Persephone (there is much in this name, too, suggestions of the Eleusian Mysteries, and ties later invoked to Lysistrata), Jesse is drawn into another war zone of dealers and thieves: "[The lawyer] shook his head at the throng of aimless boys at the top of the hill. As they stood side by side, their colorful clothing seemed to join together to form one huge advertising billboard...Here, where Biscuit Boy was born and raised, was a free fire zone, open season on any moment of calm. Like the Middle Ages, this was a place of basic oral communication only. An oligarchy of sports and movie celebrities ruled over a new consumer peasantry. Like poor soldier serfs, these children built their lives around the imaginary castles of athletes and actors...There were icons on every television urging children to buy denim icons for their legs and canvas icons for their feet."
Investigating the crime, and seeking to humanize Biscuit Boy before putting him in front of a jury, Jesse Pasadoble confronts both his past and the vacancies within himself, that state in which, "when desire is stripped of humanity...all that remains is war."
Author Véa is a criminal defense lawyer in San Francisco. He is himself a veteran who was sent to Vietnam after a youth as a migrant worker. He worked his way through law school at a variety of jobs, from truck driver to carnival mechanic. More than the sum of these things, he is a luminous writer. His language is colorful and allusive, and he has the rare skill to match elegant syntax to the complementary expression of his thought. One may question the facility of a politics which can build an analogy between field medics and public defenders ("We tend the wounded, he thought, those who were wounded by life, by testosterone, by poverty"); yet, there is great nobility, and a sort of futile heroism, in his vision of men and women struggling to make civilization in a brutal world with no weapons except the decency and compassion of their desires.
Alfredo Véa reads from Gods Go Begging at 7:30 p.m. Monday, September 13, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4831 E. 22nd St. The reading is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a booksigning.