Making do and getting by in present-day Spanish Harlem.
Quiñonez’s second, after his well-received debut, Bodega Dreams (2000), follows narrator Julio Santana, a high-school dropout nearing 30 who supports himself and his parents by working on a demolition crew while also attending night school—and freelancing as an arsonist who torches buildings as part of an insurance scam. Julio’s smart, reflective voice is one of the chief pleasures here, as evidenced by its arresting first sentence: “The house I’m about to set on fire stands alone on a hill.” Quiñonez gradually introduces other characters who define and complicate Julio’s relationship to his down-and-out world. He genuinely loves and respects his devout mother and layabout father (a former salsa musician softened by “hard living”). He watches over his “retard” buddy Trompo Loco, who believes he’s the illegitimate son of Julio’s firebug boss Eddie Naglioni. And he’s more chaotically involved with his childhood friend and enemy, belligerent socialist-social activist Maritza; self-styled Santeria priest “Papelito”; and a white woman named Helen, whose artistic preoccupations and liberal guilt simultaneously attract and repel him. There are echoes of James Baldwin’s Another Country in this bumpy story’s blend of ethnic identities and sexual persuasions. But it’s redundant, and its vise-grip plot—in which a misjudgment Julio makes during a “burning” puts him under Eddie’s thumb—isn’t wholly credible. What’s best about Chango’s Fire (whose title alludes to the Santeria “life force”) are Quiñonez’s ingeniously detailed revelations of how people cheat and improvise, to survive in an impoverished and dangerous racist environment. This is an author who knows his material. But next time out he needs to embody it in situations and characters more believable and compelling.
Chango’s Fire is, therefore, a rough patch in the road. Still, Quiñonez appears to be on his way to artistic maturity.