A tragic twist of fate leaves a revered artist destitute in Texas in this novel.
Seventy-year-old Cosimo Infante Cano was born in Cuba but forged a reputation as a modernist painter living and working in Paris. In 1961, he finds himself experiencing the same “nightmarish anxiety” he felt while fighting in the Great War as he wanders the streets of San Antonio with very little money. His plan was to make a passage from Europe to America to join his lover, Sara Hunter, whom he met in Paris and has known for 14 years. Yet, after his arrival in the United States, he discovers that his suitcases containing his “street clothes and address book” have been stolen. On reaching San Antonio, he then learns that Sara has been killed in a car accident. The wealthy Hunter family chooses to distance itself from him, making his situation even more precarious, as he had entrusted $45,000 to Sara to keep until his arrival along with two trunks packed with his clothes, tools, and brushes. Cosimo barely has the money to find himself a clean bed for the night, let alone the resources to sue the Hunters. Meanwhile, he faces a society where racial prejudice is commonplace. His appearance and bohemian attire mark him immediately as an outsider, or an “odd bird,” as one passerby remarks. Treated as a second-class citizen on account of his race and a vagrant because of his clothes, the city tries to prevent Cosimo from gaining a foothold, but the aging artist’s resilience may be underestimated.
Cosimo’s struggle against the odds is absorbing from the get-go. Yet the manner in which Perez (Willa Brown, 2016, etc.) employs several layers of narrative, backtracking to detail the protagonist’s artistic life in ’40s Paris as well as alluding to the horrors he witnessed in World War I, adds richness and depth. The author diligently pins the main narrative to key political events of the era, most significantly the reluctant cessation of racial segregation in the South, which Ruthann Medlin, an openly bigoted San Antonio librarian, bemoans: “Was President Kennedy’s doing. Mixing all the races.” The compelling tale is driven predominantly by strong dialogue, with Perez capturing the sharpness and wit of bohemian cultural repartee, as when Sara playfully comments on a novel she has been translating: “The author’s characters are pale Edward Hopper creatures living in bleak hotel rooms. Having sex, not for pleasure mind you, but out of boredom. It’s as if they’re playing a winless game of tic-tac-toe.” The bond between Cosimo and Sara is also described in satisfyingly tender detail: “She reached out and took his hand, drawing him from the table to the settee. She found his slender fingers with nails trimmed into impeccable crescents particularly sensual.” There’s only one minor flaw: Because Cosimo is such a multifaceted, intricately drawn character, all the other players appear underdeveloped in comparison. Still, this does not detract from a captivating story that orchestrates a clever collision of artistic liberalism with the conservative values of the age.
An elegantly conceived tale—boasting a culturally and historically astute plot—that demands to be read.