An unlikely friendship forms between a married couple and a disabled veteran in this debut novel.
George and Alexia Demas are middle-aged idealists living in Chicago’s Wicker Park. George is a liberal-minded curmudgeon whose belief in the dignity of the common man makes him willing to go head-to-head with the system, while Alexia’s do-gooder ethos is rooted in her Greek Orthodox faith: “For I was homeless and you gave Me shelter.” They are asked to prove their generosity when Jesus “Gato” Cárdenas, a homeless Cuban émigré and Vietnam vet, enters their lives in need of help. Gato’s Supplemental Security Income has been suspended due to the misconception that Jesus Cárdenas is dead, forcing him out on the street. The Demases agree to become Gato’s payees—to receive his SSI checks on his behalf—and to house him temporarily, despite their reservations. An odd sense of family develops between Gato and the Demases, whom the vet refers to as “Dadi” and “Mami” despite the fact that they are younger than he is. But there are more secrets to the alcoholic, gangland-fluent Gato than meet the eye, and as the Demases become further enmeshed in the life of their new ward, they learn that the misconception surrounding Jesus’ death may not be entirely false. Cole writes in a conversational prose that morphs as the narration alternates among the three protagonists. The chapters read like memoirs: “Our real fear was losing our privacy,” recalls George, “losing our ability to relax in our own home, losing the relative sanity of our lives to the craziness of his.” The plot treks ambitiously into territory rarely covered in fiction, exploring the liminal space between assisted living and homelessness that so many disabled people occupy. The novel successfully evokes the frustrations and rewards that come with trying to help a stranger in a way that is both affecting and educational. Gato’s dialect-heavy narration can induce winces at times, and there is a light Christian undertone to the story that may put off some readers. Even so, Cole digs deep into his subjects to craft a satisfying modern morality tale.
A moving social saga of compassion and connection.