It’s hard to write about this epic poem without mentioning its remarkable mode of composition. The poet who gets top billing is Ricardo K. Petrillo, but for all intents and purposes, the book’s author is his father, Claudio, as Ricardo passed away nearly a decade ago. According to the introduction, this volume is the seventh work that Ricardo has given to Claudio from beyond the grave. However, it’s less a story about a new knight errant than about why such transmissions are possible. The book’s hero is Joseph, an exceptional boy raised in New Mexico under the tutelage of a shaman. As Joseph grows up, he befriends Sancho, who will become his bosom companion, partner in crime and right-hand man. It takes no time at all for Joseph’s family and friends to recognize his intelligence, empathy, love, and desire for justice and peace. He takes these traits to medical school, where he learns that modern medicine neglects a crucial element: the human soul. Through study and meditation, Joseph comes to believe that our eternal souls exist apart from our bodies, and that we need to care for our spirits as well as our flesh. He takes this message into his medical practice and, later, into an unlikely political career. Author Martin Amis once remarked that Cervantes’ masterpiece’s only flaw is its unreadability. The same can’t be said of Petrillo’s update, which is thoroughly approachable and reads with admirable ease. Although it’s presented as poetry, it’s actually just prose dropped into unmetered quatrains, and at a few awkward moments, one wishes it would abandon the verse form and use simple sentences. For instance, when Joseph’s medical school professor advises him to “[s]tay without involvement / With the patients that come to you,” readers may wish that he’d just say, “Don’t get emotionally involved with your patients.” Also, aside from the sidekick Sancho, there isn’t much of Cervantes’ original to be found here. The Spanish hero’s famously mad windmill-tilting served to send up traditions of chivalric literature; by contrast, there’s nothing mad about Joseph at all: He’s the brilliant prophet of a new religion and a political savior. Overall, this work might have told Joseph’s story more effectively if it weren’t saddled with literary baggage.
An unexpected, poetic tale, in which the medium really is the message.