Dzanc Books: Westland, MI, 2011. 530 pages. $22.00.
If you’ve spent significant time outside of your home country, you know it changes you—not just the way you talk, but the way you think. John Segovia, the California-born, Peruvian-emigrant narrator of Roy Kesey’s extraordinary first novel, Pacazo, experiences this acutely. To make matters more disorienting, he’s plagued by persistent visa troubles; his position as an English teacher at a local university is tenuous; and his young wife has been murdered, leaving him alone to care for their infant daughter.
As the novel opens, Segovia, the quintessential ugly (and fat, by his own account) American in Piura, a coastal desert city, is trying to balance work and fatherhood while investigating his wife’s case, which the police have already given up on solving. As he searches, Segovia, a historian by training, envisions episodes from Peruvian history in detail so vivid they’re almost hallucinatory. His obsession looks like it will consume him until storms and flooding, a result of El Niño, arrive to wipe away the crime scene and destroy the boxes and boxes of “evidence” Segovia has collected and stored in his own home.
After the rains, “It is as if the known horizon were a painting on cloth, and we have torn through to a place neither of us has ever been.” This leveling seems to offer a chance to start over—Segovia recommits himself to his career, begins socializing, even dates again—until another woman who resembles his wife is found murdered, rekindling his focus on the crimes and leading to a climax both disturbing and surprising. And that’s barely scratching the surface. But the way Kesey inhabits Segovia’s perspective makes the book compelling by offering us the complexity of a human being along with the suspense of the plot. Take Segovia’s description of his backyard:
My patio chairs are vast, hemp and rebar, delightful, and there are small birds in my almond tree. The birds are mainly brown. I have seen them many times before but do not know what they are called.
Kesey’s language bears the simple elegance of William Carlos Williams. It works to impress us with his immersion in the character. Segovia is delighted by the vastness of his chairs because he’s intensely aware that Piura isn’t built to his scale. The elementary description of the birds is in keeping with a man who spends his days teaching other adults the basics of the language, as is the lack of contractions.
Kesey is also capable of making more daring stylistic moves, as in this passage early in the novel, in which Segovia shifts his own perspective from the bench he’s sitting on to a scene five centuries earlier:
The nearest building, sharp white. I close my eyes. There is the smell of decomposing leaves, of heat and wet grass. I have been this tired before but do not remember when and a ship drifts south along the coast toward the mouth of a river. A shout goes up. The men gather at the port gunwhale.
These shifts in perspective, coupled with Segovia’s present-tense narration, force us to contemplate his reliability. Can his accounts of early modern history be trusted? How about his accounts of contemporary life? Is he really as monstrous, as exotic in the eyes of the Piurans, as good a singer as he repeatedly tells us he is?
This technique isn’t without its risks, particularly given that it’s introduced so early in this relatively thick novel. Pacazo may be a good deal longer than it needs to be, but ultimately it is so stunning sentence by sentence, its scenes and characters so intimately connected, they create a portrait of the end of the last millennium that’s surprising in momentum and scale. And that scope may just be the novel’s great achievement.