What They're Saying
FOR MANDY KEIFETZ
Alanna Nash, Entertainment Weekly, January 21/28, 2000
This whirlwind of a first novel tracks the affair between a Columbia University linguistics teacher and a small-time New Mexico thug. What attracts Molly Veeka, who regularly sees ghosts of her parents and her dead husband, to Goliath C. Flanagan, who constantly puts them both in danger with his illegal drug trafficking and assorted peccadilloes, seems to be the intoxicating cocktail of sex and death. Keifetz's language often thrills ("My ears were clogged up with the sound of his cracking skull"), as does her black humor. But the story flies on the strength of its characters, an unforgettable assemblage of sad and sweaty losers who crack jokes as they skate along the outer edge of sanity.
Book Review for "Images,"
Since writing my first book review for "Images" at the end of 1997, I've been impressed by the variety and quantity of books set in Las Cruces, Mesilla and El Paso—or in fictional versions thereof. The latest to cross my desk is by New York writer Mandy Keifetz, a novel called Corrido, named for a style of Mexican ballad.
Far from ballad-like, this book has the relentless rhythmic pounding of an urban rap played at full blast: it's a driving, hard-edged tale of seedy characters who talk the talk in hip, smooth, fast language that's riddled—and I mean through and through—with profanity. Much of it takes place under the enfeebling hot sun of southern New Mexico, but it has the crazed energy and darkness of a New York City street at midnight. The book brings those two locales together through its 2 narrators—Flan and Molly—who, despite their vastly different circumstances, have fallen into a steamy long-distance love affair.
Goliath Flanagan—Flan, for short—is a shrewd drug-dealing ex-con born and raised in Mapache, which, from its landmarks and history, can be read as Mesilla. He's the son of a gambling mother and prostitute grandmother and considers this region a "cursed wasteland." As she says, "I'd always been an outsider and liked it, dreaming of New York, of trading the Land of Enchantment for the land of anonymous freaks."
His girlfriend is Dr. Molly Veeka, a linguistic prodigy who speaks 39 languages and teaches at a prestigious university in New York. For all her clarity of tongue, however, Molly's world is clouded—not only by her escapades with Flan into drugs and alcohol, but also by her regular encounters with the dead. A typical day for Molly includes visitations by her gypsy father, a host of imps and animals, and her late husband Evan, who died after taking a hallucinogen and walking under a bus. It's no surprise that Keifetz sets the book in the weeks surrounding Halloween and our locally much-celebrated Day of the Dead. This book is all about the possibility, and the impossibility, of opposing realities colliding: the living and the dead, and the real and the unreal, Mexico and the US, men and women, ex-cons and professors, speech and silence, and madness and sanity.
When the book opens, Flan is on his way to a new life in New York with Molly. What lures them back is Molly's old lover and teacher, who invites her to substitute for his class at NMSU for a few days while he attends a conference. Once here, Flan and Molly get sucked into a dangerous power game. In Keifetz's sinister version of Las Cruces and the so-called Mapache, almost everyone—from a farmer's daughter right up to the local priest—is involved in crime, drug trafficking or some sort of prostitution. Drugs and sex permeate the novel as promiscuously as the dust of New Mexico settles on every available surface. But when a Danish beer corporation elbows its way in with big development plans, the crime ring of Mapache begins to unravel.
For much of the book, Keifetz seems less interested in the truth of her portrayals than the verbal sparring that goes on. Like Molly, she seems to enjoy the cigarette-in-your-face snideness of the characters, and their linguistic spats. But also like Molly, it turns out, she wants to get beyond the surface vulgarity and really listen to what people say and feel—to catch the subtle associations of their words.
Given how much she disses Las Cruces and Mesilla, it isn't always easy. I had to get 3/4s of the way through to discover that this book actually has a heart. But it does. A "corrido"—a the epigraph notes—is a narrative ballad from this region that celebrates heroes, grieves for the suffering of the innocent, and honors the memory of the dead. In its own punk-slick sort of way, this Corrido eventually lives up to its name. (1/23/99)
From The Austin Chronicle, 12/11/98:
Take all the lingering ghosts and graying sages out of the American desert, and what is left? Madness, answers first-time novelist Mandy Keifetz. A gritty, guns-and-drugs place where history and habits allow no one to escape. With her blustery first novel, Corrido, Keifetz helps to create and explore this madness by collecting all the mythic spirits from the sands and placing them into the heads of her charmingly neurotic characters. After all her twisting of plot and logic, what Keifetz comes up with is a sort of hallucinogenic romance set in the empty West, a picture of the torment and craze of two lovers as they become trapped int he mirages of their relationship.
The more neurotic of these lovers is Molly Veeka, a New York linguistics professor who frequently converses with dwarfish incarnations of the dead. Her teaching routine, which is little more than a than a ceaseless bickering with grad students over the weightless problems of signifiers and code, is interrupted by the appearance of Goliath C. Flanagan, her on-again, off-again boyfriend who has just finished serving probation for drug-running in New Mexico. Flan, as she calls him, is eager to leave the dry and paceless life of the West and settle with Molly in the anonymous glitz of New York. After becoming freshly involved in a scheme to sell a psychedelic drug called Smiley, though, he is forced to return to the desert to pick up a shipment. Molly accompanies him because she has agreed to substitute teach at New Mexico State University for her former college mentor and ex-lover, Feck, who is busy trying to sucker his way into the Modern Language Association. It is in the desert that the discomforts of their love come to the fore, opening up the narrative for the invasion of the ghosts of Molly's father and her dead ex-husband....
What makes the novel a satisfying read Keifetz's right-on grasp of events and details that elevate the common into something nearly precious. Her description of Molly Veeka's favorite baseball team as 'the tang of strive and failure, or labor in obscurity, underdog magic, long muscles stretching under sweaty skin' may as well be the epitaph for the wilting love between her characters, or for the doomed inhabitants of her vast desert. It is in moments like this that the insanity of her book opens itself up to reveal its rich nature, one of drugs and sweat for sure, but also one of cooling earth at night, and sadness. (David Garza)
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