A quirky war veteran goes on a pilgrimage to meet his hero, the author Gabriel García Márquez, in this poetic debut novel.
Jefferson Long Solider has returned home after two tours in Iraq. The young veteran steps off a plane in Albuquerque, N.M., and begins to chant, “I am Jefferson Long Soldier, and I am returned from WA-AR.” It’s the first of many chanting scenes in a journey steeped in elements of magical realism, echoing Jefferson’s obsession with García Márquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. He carries the book with him wherever he goes, refers to its author as “GGM” and is certain that it has saved his life. His grandmother Esco and his cousin Nigel welcome him home and anxiously wait to see how the war has changed him. While in Iraq, Jefferson began to record each death he witnessed, and the list begins to haunt him; what should be a triumphant return from war becomes a painful, restless ordeal. Jefferson finds Dr. Monika, an unorthodox “pseudo-doctor” who allows him to chant and talk about his transformative belief in García Márquez’s novel, after which he finds his next step is clear: He must ride Nigel’s motorcycle to Mexico City and see the author in person. Stark presents a largely interior journey, with long passages describing the landscape (“Jefferson could think of nothing in the world he wanted to do as he gazed at the snow-tipped mountains way off in the distance”) and ruminating on García Márquez’s work, although the best storytelling occurs during scenes of action. Jefferson’s adventures are often dreamlike, and some may actually be dreams: At one point, he’s captured by bandits and nearly executed; at others, he’s fed and loved by beautiful twin women and helps a mother deliver a baby in a forest. As the lines blur between Jefferson’s physical journey and his spiritual quest, he eventually finds a purpose for all his stories. The novel’s textual dialogue with One Hundred Years of Solitude is significant, and it’s an ambitious conceit. However, readers who aren’t familiar with that masterpiece may get mired in the details, as Jefferson’s own life story sometimes gets lost. Still, the story’s happy ending is richly deserved.
An ambitious novel with a distinct narrator and fresh voice.