A psychological novel explores two young men whose lives intersect in Los Angeles chaotically, emotionally, sexually, and violently.
In the book’s opening section, readers meet Clyde Koba, a second-generation Japanese-American and the narrator of the first part of this tale. It is 1973, and he is about to celebrate his 11th birthday. Before the night is over, his father comes home, abusively drunk as usual. Clyde tries to hide and winds up accidentally stepping on his beloved cat, breaking the feline’s back and killing him. Eventually, Clyde begins to display a violent streak, and his issues with sexual identity grow more overt. He becomes obsessed with Marilyn Monroe’s photographs and biography, convinced her spirit has been reincarnated in his body. Then the story takes on a third-person narrator and moves to another part of town, where 16-year-old Raphael Dweck has decided he is finished with his court-mandated psychotherapy. Three years ago, Raphael, a kleptomaniac, stole the silver breastplate of the Torah he had been studying for his bar mitzvah. Born in Israel, the Orthodox, observant Raphael immigrated to Los Angeles with his family eight years ago. But now his parents and rabbi decide the teen must find salvation by returning to Israel and living with a despised aunt. Ortega-Medina’s (Jerusalem Ablaze, 2017) graphic prose is vivid, especially when describing the Israeli desert: “The orb of the sun spits out swirls of colour as it dips westward, painting the purpling sky with reds and oranges, and splashing the edges of the crater with an ever-changing palette. Raphael…sketches furiously, trying to capture something of the devolving landscape as the colours intensify, and a warm wind kicks up from the desert floor.” The author’s deft construction of this complex plot reflects his experience in creating short stories. He concentrates first on Clyde, then on Raphael. Finally, the tale jumps ahead to 1982, several years after Raphael (now Ralph) returned to California. The two men’s paths become intertwined as they form a quirky, symbiotic relationship. Ralph, still searching for God, is the more manipulative of these two psychologically fragile, fully developed characters. Clyde, now cross-dressing as Monroe, is the more explosive and physically dangerous one. Ralph tells Clyde: “We’re all messed up, in one way or another. Every one of us. Damaged goods.” That could be this dark, disturbing novel’s subtitle.
Finely textured character development almost compensates for a depressing tale.