Nina Marie Martinez
Forgetting for a moment the old saw about not judging a book by its cover, the design of íCaramba! is both delightful and integral to the stories it tells. Billing itself as "a tale told in turns of the card," it is graced throughout with illustrations borrowed from and inspired by the Mexican game of loteria (think of a romantic take on bingo using cards bearing pictures and sayings). Random bits of ephemera liven up the pages as well--a two-page spread of the local jukebox selections, court documents, a handwritten letter--but these devices serve more as window dressing. The prose is enjoyable but uneven, and after a while, the zaniness starts to feel forced, careening from truly insightful humor to hiding behind its own conceits.
Set in the fictional California town of Lava Landing, íCaramba! follows the lives of six residents, centering on best friends Natalie and Consuelo. Their relationship is finely drawn--they exist in the kind of self-contained symbiosis that only lifelong best friends are able to pull off--but they are by far the most studied characters in the book, the others suffering from being painted too broadly and in slightly too vibrant a hue. Lulabell, an aging but lovely practitioner of brujer"a folk magic, is the mother of Javier, a born-again Christian mariachi. He is in love with Lucha, a hot little number who affects piety in order to sway him into a life of sin. The sextet is rounded out by True-Dee, a beautiful pre-op transsexual who owns the town's beauty parlor, natch. The whimsy here teeters precariously close to the edge of preciousness--it's heavily steeped in the tradition of magical realism, updated to reflect the sensibility of the telenovela, the norte˝a, and small-town Mexican-American kitsch.
The overall themes seem to be of transformation and release, by means both fantastical and pragmatic--Lava Landing is situated on a dormant volcano that just might erupt again at any moment, and it casts its metaphorical shadow deep and wide. While True-Dee dithers over whether or not to dispense with the last of her male trappings, Consuelo must overcome her fear of transportation--in the literal sense of trains, cars, buses, anything that can take her more than 30 miles from home. Magical-realistically, the only way this can happen is for Natalie to go down to Mexico and contrive to spring Consuelo's deceased father from Purgatory. Meanwhile, Lulabell must decide if she wants to abandon her witchy ways, stop slutting it up with migrant workers, and embrace true love via magical means. Martinez deals with some big issues here, but her tendency toward cutesiness can distract from what is in moments a deft and loving touch.