July 8th, 2013

Jon Pineda's Apology

Jon Pineda's first novel, Apology (Milkweed Editions, 2013), explores the lives of two families affected by an accident that leaves a young girl brain damaged.

I was excited to see that Pineda has a new book out, having greatly enjoyed two of his previous books (see previous reviews of his stunning memoir Sleep in Me by stephenhongsohn and me as well as of his poetry collection The Translator's Diary). This novel has flashes of the deeply poetic language that Pineda's earlier work exhibited but is definitely more narratively driven. The story unfolds in many brief scenes (just a page to a few pages in length), bouncing back and forth between the perspectives and histories of a few characters.

At the heart of the story is Teagan (called Sissy by her family), the twin sister of Tom, who in a careless and irrevocable moment of childhood play cuts her head open on a shovel in a construction site hole after a boy hits her with a ball while she is jumping over the hole. While she survives the accident, she remains child-like for the rest of her life and must be taken care of by her parents even into her adulthood. After a brief focus on her perspective in the beginning of the novel, though, the narrative ultimately leaves her aside to examine the fallout of the accident, especially for the boy Mario who was involved and Mario's uncle Exequiel (nicknamed Shoe by the construction company who hired him as a day laborer) who found the girl the following day.

The story is really quite heartwrenching, and the characters all fumble through a sense of guilt about what happened and how to carry on with their lives. Exequiel's sacrifice for his nephew, taking the blame for what happened to Teagan, leads to his imprisonment for over a dozen years. Interestingly, Pineda sketches out a backstory for Exequiel in his home country somewhere in Latin America, where he had a horrific encounter with guerillas that left him with shoulder and foot injuries. A recurring description of him as the man who drags his foot is evocative throughout the novel (that feature is partially what leads to his arrest as a witness remembers seeing his awkward gait at the construction site with a shovel that morning). Exequiel is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the novel, being the most guiltless but the most punished of all. His imprisonment allows Mario to study hard in school and eventually to become a pediatric heart surgeon--the achievement of immigrant success at the expense of much familial sacrifice.

The central question that the novel floats is how much Teagan's family--her twin brother Tom and her parents--know about what really happened that evening of her accident and what it means for Mario or Exequiel to apologize for what happened. Something else that haunts the novel is the immigrant experience of the parents. Exequiel and his brother Paul come from an unidentified Latin American country, and Teagan's parents come from the Philippines. Exequiel's actions at the accident site (to call it in anonymously and to hide the football he found in the hole with his nephew's name on it) stem from his difficult experiences in his home country as well as the life of itinerant labor he led as an adult. Teagan's father was in the navy, and his experiences point to the military entanglements of the U.S. and the Philippines as well as note his obsession with mestizas.

Here is the publisher's book trailer, which takes as its voice over narration the last of a few letters that Mario writes to the prison parole board in favor of his uncle's release.

Interestingly, one of the blurbs in the trailer is from Darin Strauss, whose memoir Half a Life I thought of while reading this novel. Strauss's memoir is about his life spent dealing with the guilt of an accident he was in as a teenager that led to another teen's death. There are similar explorations of guilt and innocence and of the questioning sense of how to move on in life after a senseless tragedy. Of course, the novel also seems to take as a starting point Pineda's own family's experience. As his memoir elaborates and his poems also explore, his own older sister was injured in a car accident while she was a teenager, leaving her mind and body broken. (Another note on connections--a few young adult novels I've listened to recently in audiobook format have also dealt with the figure of the lost twin, and I'm fascinated by the interest in twins, especially when one is lost through death or injury. Paolo Giordano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers features a Mattia as a boy who leaves his developmentally-disabled sister in the park on his way to a birthday party. She disappears, presumed drowned in the river. The novel riffs on the idea of twin primes, numbers separated only by one integer and thus, in the novel's description, deprived of true intimate connection while being in close proximity. A couple of other novels by Kenneth Oppel, This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent, reimagines Victor Frankenstein's youth and the loss of his twin brother Konrad as the apprenticeship of the infamous monster-creating figure.)
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