Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: Taxi Rojo by Erik Orrantia

Reviewer: Victor J. Banis
Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing
Pages:  212

Rating, 4.5 stars out of 5

Tijuana—the melting pot of Mexico, the gateway to the U.S., the armpit of Baja California. Two million souls struggle for survival, each searching for a way to become ... something, anything better. Fate brings a few strangers together one night in a crowded taxi rojo. When the red taxi crashes down a canyon, it creates a connection between the passengers that, like the international border within sight of the crash, draws a line between triumph and defeat, hopelessness and perseverance, life and death.

Erik Orrantia is the Lambda Literary Award winning author of Normal Miguel (Cheyenne Publishing, 2010) and The Equinox Convergence (Etopia Press, 2011). He brings you a first-hand view of life on the south side of the world’s busiest international border Taxi Rojo.

The Review:
Author Erik Orrantia returns to something near top form with this, his third novel. In the style of Thornton Wilder’s classic The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the novel uses a tragic disaster – in this case, the crash of one of Tijuana’s route taxis, the eponymous red taxi of the title – to link together the stories of a diverse group of characters.

Pancha (Francisco at his birth and Sponge Barbie on stage) is a drag performer at the Tijuana bar El Taurino.

Rigo and Cristian are in a long term relationship, but Rigo is in a hot relationship with Toni, who is married and sees himself as strictly heterosexual despite his sexual encounters with Rigo and other males.

Oscar Sepulveda is an old man with, on this particular night, a new young trick, Derek.
Julia is a straight woman, overworked as a domestic for an American family in San Diego, commuting every day from the suburb, Playas de Tijuana, and worried that her visitor’s visa is soon due to expire, leaving her unemployed.

Fate brings these people together in the same taxi, the night it runs off the road and crashes. Julia blames herself for causing the accident in which Rigo breaks a leg and Pancha loses a tooth. The driver is killed, as is Oscar Sepulveda, and Derek disappears with Oscar’s wallet, leaving Oscar without identification and condemned to a common grave for unknowns.

Like the ripples in a stream when a pebble is cast into it, the consequences of the taxi crash continue to radiate out into the lives of the survivors.

Orrantia’s strength as a writer is in his ability to conjure up ordinary people struggling with their own personal, and often prosaic, problems–a young gay couple sorting out issues of fidelity, a latent homosexual struggling with his identity, a good-hearted but overtaxed woman trying to care for her family, a drag queen finding love where he least expects it – Clearly these are not earth shattering matters, but they are of a sort with which most of us can identify.  Which is to say, most of us have known these people, even shared their burdens.

The author uses that gift here to usher us not only into the lives of his characters but into their hearts as well. And Sin City itself, Tijuana, becomes very nearly another character in the book. Having spent time in some of the locations the author describes—even to riding in a taxi rojo—I found myself nodding my head in agreement as I read – yes, I’ve walked by that fountain, been in those bars, down to Playas, and stood in line at that border crossing (the busiest in the world, I’m told.) All of them are brought vividly to life here.

The novel is not without its flaws, perhaps the worst of them being that too many of the problems seem to just vanish, rather than being resolved by the characters struggling with them. Happy resolutions pop up gratuitously, important actions are left unexplained, and coincidence plays too big a role. And a more careful edit would have been welcome.

Still, the author’s affection for his characters is palpable, and most readers will find it easy to share and to savor their triumphs –yes, admittedly they are sometimes mundane triumphs, but of such is much of life constructed. Few of us win the great fortune, or find ourselves the love object of the gorgeous alpha male or any of the other fairy-tale endings common to so much fiction. For most of us, day to day happiness is more likely to resemble the quasi-Italian dinner Julia and Roberto share, or just the fellowship of good friends like Pancha and his “sisters” in drag—what triumph can equal the cementing of real friendships? Orrantia’s stories are securely grounded in the day to day vicissitudes of real life, where just getting the use of a wheelchair, or scoring a new visa, can feel as grand as winning the lottery.

And it would take a genuine churl not to enjoy the special performance that Pancha and his sisters put on for the Great Second Anniversary of the Third Grand Opening of El Taurino. One can all but smell the smoke-filled air, hear the loud music and the cheering crowds. When the show concludes with this scene, it is indeed easy to believe that, in the words of the song, “Ooh Child, things will get brighter.”

For his finale, Sponge Barbie, or Pancha, or Francisco, had made an impulse decision. He wore a pair of khaki shorts and a white T-shirt; he had a knit beanie set back on his head, covering all but the front part of his short hair. The audience stayed quiet as the first notes of the final number came through the speaker. “Things Are Gonna Get Easier,” by the Five Stairsteps.

The English was simple enough for the border town population, most folks at least vaguely familiar with the song and its meaning. Pancha used only charm as she sang the words without dramatic flair, thinking as she did so of her past, her struggles, and the sunshine she now enjoyed. For this crowd, it was a universal story.

Halfway through the song, the dressing room door swung open. Rosa Fuschia came out first, having partially undressed already, which left her lame arm and its scrawny musculature on public display in her sleeveless undershirt. She stood beside Francisco and yanked off her own wig to the delight of the crowd.

Debi Do and Arturo followed. Debi had changed into a homemade muumuu in orange tie-dye, and Arturo wore the bottom half of a leotard, his shaved chest bare. They came out and formed an impromptu line, the lack of advance planning resulting in a bit of clumsiness utterly different from the radiant choreography of the rest of the show. They swung their hips together in their dressed-down glory, each of the girls guessing at the lyrics and smiling brightly while living the moment. A few lighters flickered around the bar. After a minute, an older gay couple dared to come up to the stage and join them, and a couple of tears streamed down Francisco’s cheeks…

Good show, Mr. Orrantia.

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