A Guest Review by: Stuart
Review Summary: Day of the Dead is a profound and beautiful novel exploring how places shape our lives and define our choices and whether love can help us transcend these constraints.
“I’ll see you in a few days. I won’t say good-bye, then, but hasta luego.” Until later. A later that never came. After visiting his sick mother in Mexico, Arturo didn’t return to San Francisco. With an expired tourist visa and a lover and business to get back to, he risked reentering the US illegally but never made it across the border. Haunted by constant thoughts of Arturo, Joe has to carry on in his absence and the lingering despair of loss as he relives their past. His responsibilities to both their restaurant and to Chava, a troubled, hot-tempered young man they’d taken in, demand Joe pull himself together. But Chava’s past is never far behind. Caught in the middle, Joe must make a choice. In the aftermath, he decides to visit Arturo’s parents. It’s a desperate bid for peace, but Joe isn’t sure revisiting his memories will be enough to help him move on, even when later finally arrives on the Day of the Dead.
Whether you will choose to read Erik Orrantia’s Day of the Dead depends on what you are seeking from M/M fiction. It’s not a book to relax with after a long day at work and it contains few of the elements common to the genre. For example, there are no naked men, seductions, or remotely explicit sex scenes in DotD. There is no melodrama, angst or sentimentality. There is not even a HEA, in the usual sense. Instead, Day of the Dead is a novel about the specificity and universality of love, suffering, grief, injustice, friendship, work, God, transcendence, money, class, and power. I read it slowly over the course of 8 days, with many pauses for reflection.
The novel is built around main character Joe’s grief-stifled life in San Francisco during the two months prior to the Day of the Dead, when he will commemorate the third anniversary of his partner Arturo’s death.
Joe and Arturo were partnered for 5 years before Arturo’s disappearance, having met and fallen in love at the Festival Internacional Cervantino held annually in Arturo’s hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico. One of the great pleasures of the book is its specificity of place. The book abounds in lush, poetic descriptions of locations as different as Guanajuato, San Francisco, Phoenix, Tecate, and Tijuana. These descriptions are not mere travelogue, however. In order to understand Joe and Arturo, we need to understand how the specific places they are from made them the particular people they are. To understand Arturo, we need to understand Guanajuato, “… with its colonial buildings strewn about rolling hills, cobblestone streets, alleyways and staircases in irregular arrays. Plazas and taco carts stood on every corner, potted plants on second story balconies, women in aprons sweeping the street outside their homes until they stopped to gossip with the neighbors, and thriving old trees grew in strange directions on slanted embankments, roots clinging to bare rock.”
Places can dictate or limit our decisions, and they certainly do in DotD. Arturo is a Mexican citizen and Joe a US citizen. Joe can cross freely back and forth across the border, while Arturo cannot. For Joe, borders are abstractions that might involve standing in various types of lines to show his American passport. For Arturo, La Linea, The Line, is a reality of fences and walls that physically define where and how he can exist. Red ink on a denied visa application prevents Arturo from boarding a plane, bus, train or car and traveling the 518 miles that separate him from the life he lovingly built with Joe in San Francisco. Arturo dies because he is not permitted to cross an imaginary line in a specific place. As Erik Orrantia succinctly and beautifully writes of Joe and Arturo: “They were two people with vastly different power based on where they’d been born and how much money they had. The world was a cruel place.”
Joe’s decisions are equally constrained by place, though in a different way. If Joe could have married Arturo in San Francisco then Arturo could have received a Green Card and sought US citizenship. But there is no federal right to same-sex marriage and Joe cannot give to Arturo what any American man can choose to give to any woman. (On September 28, 2012, just 60 days ago, same-sex, binational couples became eligible for relief from deportation from the USA through a policy change by the Department of Homeland Security. What a world.) With simplicity and directness, DotD portrays the real damage wrought by being a 2nd class citizen in your own nation.
However, DotD is not only a meditation on how place shapes love. The story of Joe and Arturo unfolds into a declaration that love can ultimately transcend the constraints placed upon us by money, power, and origin. The novel is a romance because it believes in love’s capacity to empower us to go beyond the qualities that define us. A realist would say that history repeatedly demonstrates that love cannot transcend the limitations placed upon us by others. Romeo and Juliet, for example, certainly learned this lesson.
But the kind of tragic, overheated, adolescent love exemplified by Romeo and Juliet is just the kind of love that Joe and Arturo do not have. Their love matures and develops from the real tests that often challenge adult relationships. Can they learn to make time for one another when their work schedules are incompatible? Can Arturo have patience with Joe’s inability to make decisions? Can Joe accept that Arturo likes to drink more than Joe would like? Can Arturo adapt to his resentment that Joe has freedoms in the US that he does not. The answers to these questions evolve as the couple evolves, just as such answers should.
The commonplace nature of their love only renders the author’s descriptions of it more profoundly beautiful. At one point, Arturo says to Joe, “I know this place is ours because I have faith in you.” What could be a more perfect declaration by a partner to his beloved? Or this: “We made love that early morning. We didn’t make it, actually it was already there between us. We found it, remembered it, and revived it.”
Can anything truer be said about love or stated more beautifully? I hope you enjoy Day of the Dead, if you choose to read it. Like love, it’s more than worth the effort it demands.