Eddie’s Desert Rose (CreateSpace)/Tio Jorge: A Mexican Soap Opera (Fallen Bros. Publishing) – Vincent Meis

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To purchase either of Vincent’s books, visit his website.

Some authors make a huge splash with a
first novel, leaving fans and critics alike ever-expectant about and always
mildly disappointed by every subsequent offering.  Other authors, however, need some time to
find their footing, revealing glimmers of their talents and thematics in
earlier work, finding their mature voice along the way.  Vincent Meis belongs to this latter
category.  His first two novels show an
incredibly deft hand and engaging sensibility when it comes to finding the
pathos of familial dysfunction and narrating the unfolding consequences of
unresolved relational tensions.  They
also have a similar structure and stylistic devices.  But his second novel has abandoned some of
the distracting and unsuccessful features of the first, concentrating on what
Meis does best.

Both Eddie’s Desert Rose and Tio
Jorge
open with a death, and unfold around the protagonists uncovering the
causes and negotiating the consequences of that death.  Both contain narratives built around the
tensions created by ethnic and national difference.  Both are comprised by multiple narrative voices.  Both include gay characters, but neither
gives this character center stage.  Both
are engaging, suspenseful, well-crafted stories. 

Eddie’s Desert Rose is, fundamentally, the story of two
brothers, Dave and Eddie Bates, who have taken jobs as English language
teachers in Saudi Arabia to earn enough money to live the lives they want to
live back home.  Eddie dies within the
first few pages of the novel and its remaining pages are devoted to Dave and
his wife Maura traveling through Europe and the Middle East solving what turns
out to be Eddie’s murder.  Along the way,
through Dave’s recollections and Eddie’s journals, the reader learns about the
brothers’ lives, their deep affection for each other, their unresolved
conflicts and Eddie’s erotic adventures. 
Meis is at his best when he is conveying the affective and historical dimensions
of his characters.  When he is narrating
the brothers’ past, Dave’s relation to his wife, the characters’ respective
familial dysfunctions, as well as their more contemporary struggles, the
writing rings true and has an admirable, enjoyable gravitas. 

Meis has a particular gift for mundane and
banal details.  There were a number of
times, when reading a description of a scene—in both this novel and Tio
Jorge
—that a phrase or sentence  made
me gasp with recognition, for the way that it perfectly captured and
conveyed a moment.  At the same time,
Meis lets himself get caught up in the “international thriller” plotting of Eddie’s
Desert Rose
—that often made me sigh with exasperation at its far-fetched
implausibility.  Was I really supposed to
believe that a regular Joe and Jane from the Midwest are capable of the eluding
the CIA and outsmarting wealthy, well-connected Saudis?  Both Tio Jorge and Meis’ first novel
have just one adventure too many: both novels would have been much more
effective if they had ended a chapter or two sooner.  Plus, the final reveal of familial
dysfunction in Eddie’s Desert Rose seems a bit trite, obvious and
well-worn.

The features and moments that work
incredibly well in Eddie’s Desert Rose are honed and buffed in Meis’s
second offering, Tio Jorge.  This
novel opens with the death of Helen, the morning after she has learned of her
husband Miguel’s years-long affair with family friend, George (the titular
“Uncle Jorge”).  The bulk of the novel is
told in the first-person voice of Miguel and Helen’s daughter, Rebecca, as she
tries to piece together her connection to her father, his family in Mexico and
her beloved Uncle of childhood memories. 
As with Eddie’s Desert Rose, however, at important moments, the
novel shifts to George’s first-person perspective.  This shift in voice never feels like a
gimmick, precisely because of Meis’s ability to capture fully and authentically
the mood and tone of different characters’ voices.  Here, we once again have a narrative that
unfolds around finding answers about a loved one’s death, but Meis now
restricts himself to telling a story of family secrets rather than swerving
into the generic trappings of the spy thriller. 
(And the few occasions Tio Jorge does venture into this
territory, it loses much of its energy and interest.)  This allows him to play to his strengths of
building characters, narrating emotional complexity and unraveling—slowly—the
secrets that haunt all relationships. 
Although Tio Jorge is the longer of the two novels, and involves
more characters and a more complex “back story”—unfolded at just the right
pace—it is also a more successful novel because it has a narrower focus on the
“adventure” of trying to live a human life in the midst of loss and love. 

As noted above, gay characters are not the
protagonists of either of these novels, even though they play key roles in both
stories.  The precise role they play,
however, left me a bit puzzled.  In both Eddie’s
Desert Rose
and Tio Jorge, there is a patina of danger and risk that
necessarily attaches itself to gay desire. 
After all, Eddie is dead, in part, because he pursued sex with men.  When his brother, Dave, has to imitate his
brother’s desires to track his killers, he is filled with anxiety and
disgust.  In Tio Jorge, Miguel is
dead and George is incapable of meaningful erotic connection to another
character.  The novel also contains a
predatory lesbian character, about whom the straight female narrator
experiences great discomfort.  At the
same time, Eddie’s journals are almost elegiac in their narration of longing
and desire, and George’s love for Miguel is celebrated and honored.  But there is an uninteresting—because
unthematized, almost unintentional—darkness connected to gay love in both
novels.  Moreover, gay love is very
safe—i.e., antiseptic—because it is part of both novels’ past, rather than
their present.  (There is a similarly
distracting—because unexplored—flirtation with incestuous desire in both
novels.)

The novels’ treatment of ethnic and
national difference is also puzzling. 
Saudi Arabia, in Eddie’s Desert Rose, is—except in the brief
passages comprised by Eddie’s journals—a place of danger, oppression and
violence.  America’s values relating to
gender and sexuality (as well as hygiene and food) are the right values.  (Because, of course, the gender and sexual
politics of 1980s America—the decade in which the novel is inexplicably
set—were completely unassailable.) 
Similarly, in Tio Jorge, Mexico is treated either as a place of
danger and filth, or as a place of primitive, romantic bliss.  (Isn’t it lovely that our Stanford-educated,
BMW-driving protagonist can return to the rustic village of her grandmother to
eat handmade tortillas, and then take her long-lost brother back to the safety
and opportunities of ocean front property while still hating her Anglo
grandparents for trying to buy her love?) 
While the negotiation of racial and class difference is treated with a
much defter hand in Tio Jorge, precisely because there is an
interrogation of various characters’ understanding of ethnic difference, I had
to wonder whether this element of the novel was necessary, or whether
Mexico—like the Muslim—is an easy way for Meis to get at his concerns as a
writer.  Given his ability at crafting
and narrating complex family histories, what would a novel from Meis that
didn’t involve investigation of a death and didn’t involve ethnicity or
sexuality as the source of interpersonal tension look like?

I’m very glad I had the opportunity to
read these novels together, because I don’t think I would have sufficiently
appreciated either of them in isolation. 
My dissatisfaction with the espionage plot of Eddie’s Desert Rose would
have lingered much longer if Tio Jorge hadn’t highlighted Meis’s genuine
gift for painting the history of familial and romantic relationships in all
their pleasure and pathos, which is certainly present in his first novel.  At the same time, the understated melodrama
of Tio Jorge would have likely seemed more present had I not had Meis’s
first novel as a comparative example.  If
Meis makes the same adjustment between his third novel and his second that he
made between his second and his first, then his readers will undoubtedly be in
for something very special.  Meis is a
gifted story-teller who knows how and when to reveal information, who knows how
to convey emotion, who knows how to craft complex, multi-dimensional believable
characters that we can care about, who knows how to spin relatable narratives
of sorrow and joy.  As he grows more deft
at stripping away elements that interfere with his most captivating talents, he
will undoubtedly produce work even more entertaining than the strong offerings
he has already produced.

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

 

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