As Wentling’s (Dead Cow Road, 2017, etc.) fifth novel opens, Juan Eduardo de Mejia begins sharing personal lifetime memories with the rat he’s named “Savior” who lives in his jail cell walls.
Set in the mid-20th century, Juan gushes about being the son of distinguished, respected physician Don Ernesto Tomás Mejia, who’d saved a poverty-stricken community from certain doom when catastrophic floodwaters saturated their homeland of Sinoteca decades earlier. A local hero, his father also rose to prominence as the leader of their rebuilt city. Wentling writes his narrative with an uncanny urgency as Juan’s life plays out over a series of flashbacks and vividly described scenes, including Sinoteca’s rich history and Don Ernesto’s marriage to Elena Portillo Del Campo, Juan’s mother. As his history is revealed, Juan confesses that his birth caused the tragic death of Elena, a woman “he never knew but idolized.” Even after falling into a trauma-induced coma, his father became nominated to run for president of their home country, Catrasia. Wentling’s novel is well-paced, assuredly written, and cleverly plotted: Juan’s jail sentence is left unexplained until the final third of the book. The protagonist recounts further the story of his childhood: He was raised by a foster family in the elevated mountainous region surrounding Sinoteca and renamed Antonio Gomez to shield him from his father’s political enemies. In adulthood, Juan/Antonio becomes a beloved schoolteacher, then relocates to the Sinoteca Valley, where he becomes an ally to the impoverished populace there and a witness to the region’s simmering social injustices. His advocacy on behalf of the indigent citizens and defiance against Sinoteca’s new dictatorship becomes violent and lands Juan/Antonio in prison as the novel comes full circle with a particularly satisfying grace and balance. Though Wentling waits until the final third of his tale to reveal the nature of his lonely protagonist’s destiny, readers will appreciate the narrative tension he cultivates and the strong sense of human rights leadership and sacrifice drummed up by his compellingly altruistic lead character.
An entertaining, uniquely constructed story of redemption, class warfare, and consequence, with themes both relevant and timely.