David Herrle reviews THE ACADIANS by Angel Uriel Perales

The underground Georgian poet/spoken-worder Mikel K wrote one of the best lines ever: “People are defective.” Right on, K, right on. Not only is this fundamental defectiveness self-evident, but it’s always been and always will be presented by artists of all kinds, which can get pretty tiresome if one tends to tune in to the basic atrociousness of Earth and feels the burden of the unbearable heaviness of being. However, just as yet another Titanic show or movie must contain the morbid core facts and the inevitable sinking, the goodness in the art lies in how it’s shown and how the story is told.

The people in Angel Uriel Perales’ The Acadians (Rumrazor Books) are defective. They aren’t all devoid of decent qualities, but almost all of them, some more than others, aren’t really likable. “Do these characters end up being despicable to each other?” Perales asks in a recent poeticdiversity interview. “Do they seem like I plucked them all out from a basket of deplorables? Yes.” The book is a collection of paralleling and intersecting character sketches or vignettes that form a brief but memorable debut novella. As a fan of coincidental/subplot fiction such as Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, Burt Hirschfeld’s Fire Island, Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, William Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together, Hugo’s Les Miserables and some Dickens stuff, Edgar Lee Masters’ poetic Spoon River Anthology, as well as Julien Duvivier’s Tales of Manhattan, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, Altman’s Short Cuts and Gosford Park, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel and other anthology films, I was receptive to The Acadians from the outset.

At the beginning of Grand Hotel a Dr. Otternschlag says, “Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” Finally, after the interwoven situations, encounters and consequences of the characters are shown for close to two hours, the doctor morosely remarks, “A hundred doors leading to one hall. No one knows anything about the person next to them. And when you leave, someone occupies your room, lies in your bed. That’s the end.”

Similarly, in The Acadians a prologue-like opening section’s establishment of a pastoral Louisiana setting gives readers an implicit reminder to remember the here-and-gone nature of humans against the backdrop of impersonal perpetuity, the ultimate interchangeability of individuals who rise and fall in “suburbia primordial”:

…Flowers in the median, flowers grow and die in the median. The lawn mowers break down and need to be replaced. The mail boxes eventually sag or become loose on their bases and need to be tightened or replaced. Mail carriers drink and get old and have heart attacks and die and need to be replaced…

…The wind, nothing to be said about the wind, the wind blows like the wind blows.

Later, near the end of the book, embedded in a sullen quasi-denouement, the “suburbia primordial” motif shows up again, following a bottle of Mexican Coke from someone’s hand to its burial under canal silt years later, continuing the theme of cyclical existence: “Wildflowers in the fields, wildflowers grow and die in the fields unseen.” I wish this had been put in an actual epilogue, but the epigraphed final stanza of Charles Lamb’s wistful “The Old Familiar Faces” really ends the book, its final line summing up every human life: “All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.”

Within this larger existential context appear comparatively tiny episodes full of desperate emotion, sleazy duplicity, petty striving, caprice and entropy. Parochial bluster and desire, failure and demise. After all, “the wind blows like the wind blows.” Perhaps to emphasize the brevity of individuals’ dreams and affairs, most of the text is narrated in present tense, a choice I might’ve avoided. I’ve never been comfortable with present-tense books, except for Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Tom Robbins’ underrated Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (which also is told in second person, no less), so my bias against it is not specific to The Acadians. I just think the “immediacy” thing works better for poetry.

As I mentioned before, most of the characters aren’t very attractive. For instance, Grady is an unscrupulous check pusher who was crippled by a motorcycle accident ultimately set into motion by his shooting a buck in its backside one morning. Now, in his infirmity and depression, he indulges in a nasty porn habit in spite of his dead dick. The porn isn’t necessarily nasty, but the habit is. Let’s just say that the narration about Grady and his behavior physically repulses me. There’s much interesting psychoanalytical stuff surrounding his impotence and his incorrigible disrespect for women. First, there’s a pastime of using pages from porno magazines as shooting targets (first with a gun, later with arrows): “He annihilated all those old playmates with his little Roberts rifle.” Then there’s a dream of black snakes dropping on him from a tree, and a black snake emerging continuously from his (dead?) mother’s mouth “forever.” Finally, of course, who doesn’t think a motorcycle represents a potent penis?

Swinish Grady is cared for by resentful Evie, who’s horrified to realize her imprisonment: “I’m really stuck with him now. I can’t leave now. Fuck my life.” Yet…she gets off on giving Grady penile injections, mounting his erection “fast and mercilessly” and pretending to be bored even though ecstasy is the actual result for her. Eventually, Evie takes advantage of Grady’s disability and her role as caregiver to become qualified as an LPN, to improve her own life, not his.

Teenager Dottie is fucking Ernie Willits (a really winner, I say infinitely sarcastically) behind the back of “The Mademoiselle,” her enviable older sister. The story begins soon after anal sex between Dottie and Ernie, and there’s a blush-free description of her method of accommodating him: “[S]he had to imagine she was squeezing a turd out.” Though she grits and bears it, without hope of orgasm for herself, Dottie has more than one soft spot (ahem) for Ernie, which is shown with perfection in these lines: “She wiped herself and looked at the paper and saw a weird mixture of brown and white spume and froth but no blood. A wave of affection for Ernie washes over her.”

They both fear accidental pregnancy and even have a premonition of its inevitability, but the somewhat dimwitted couple continues having unprotected sex anyway. “They don’t stop fucking because they are both fuckers and fucking is what fuckers do.” Of course, Dottie gets pregnant. I’ll just say that things don’t end well for the triangle.

Also fucking Ernie is Seraphine (also referred to Sara and Sarafina), a “mulatta” who is driven by drug addiction to have sex with the “bastard.” Drugs are a factor in her being Grady’s mistress as well, but she has a romantic history with “the Grady man,” though her love has dwindled since the motorcycle accident paralyzed him:

She loved the feel of his motorcycle between her legs. She loved his blow and his cocaine. She loved to blow him on blow again and again until he blew out his back speeding around that bend. Then Sarafina could not blow Grady again. But she could bug him about the blow that was left…With every visit Grady would grab her tits and kiss her and make some jokes and they would do some blow but her feelings were gone.

Her degradation ever increasing, Seraphine ends up in Delcroix Island and resorts to thieving and scavenging. Next she drifts over to the Iberville Projects, where a pimp named Remy “Rotgut” Gautrot thinks she’s horning in on his whore territory and “making his girls come up short.” By the time Seraphine gets to Houma, Rotgut has her maimed, and she’s thrown into an estuary to drown. One of the best parts of The Acadians is a harrowing sequence of Seraphine’s lucky survival.

Perhaps the most problematic character in the book is Dr. Muhammad Ismail Afridi, popularly known as “Dr. Easy.” Not only is he attractive to women (Evie, for one, is enamored of him), but he’s adept at a deception that at first seems benign and softly self-defensive but is twisted into a chilling strategy later on. Afridi’s knowing “how to play the dynamics between two worlds” warps into a psychological situation in which “multiple universes rage war inside him. He is conflicted by religious ideologies, some ingrained from childhood, the rest imposed by culture and collision and hate.” Earlier in the book Perales makes a blunt statement against the veracity of Christianity, which is true to his unapologetic, bare-wire atheism, and he also refuses to tiptoe around the subject of Islam, writing “Islam is also all bullshit.”

Bullshit or not, Islam dominates today’s news cycles, since it seems that its terrorism in many parts of the globe has bumped up to the nth degree. With each almost daily – if not daily – Islamist atrocity, an alarming number of people cling to denial driftwood, refusing to admit that the problem lies within the ideology itself. Perales turns this on its head and does what I suspected was coming when Afridi was first introduced in the book. After what might be an inadequate transition in attitude, he entertains a fantasy of picking off highway drivers with a rifle and causing “murder and mayhem,” letting the urge grow and grow toward realization. While riding in his car, fawning Evie repeats the familiar politically correct mantra when she assures him: “Don’t worry not all Muslims are terrorists.” Meanwhile, we know his actual inner desire. The duplicity of countless jihadist moles is presented quite chillingly in this line: “This perfectly innocuous statement crawled under his skin and he began to see the cursed woman as haram, spoilt meat, and traveling in the car with her made him sick.”

Another woman who’s attracted to “Dr. Easy” is Jenny/Genevieve/”Genevieve from the block.” Falling into pregnancies with the wrong men again and again, mother of a mentally retarded or autistic son, Terry, and a bit of a loser, Jenny has her own deadly attitude transition – except this one is deadly for her and no one else. The catalyst is disappointment over the Doc being sweet on Evie at the hospital: “Something destructive burned a hole in Jenny’s fat chest, some internecine war, and she could feel all the grace escaping from her.” With suicide on her mind, Jenny’s despair provides us with what is probably the warmest passage in the book. She falls asleep in her running car in the garage, the toxic smoke fills the air, and her son Terry interrupts the inevitable because he wants his mother to read him a book about Pinocchio:

She looks at her child with blood-rimmed eyes, her sweet, lovable, innocent child, who just saved her life, her dumb, retarded, maybe autistic, wonderful child, touched as he is, who only wants her to read to him about The Terrible Dogfish, touched as he is by the finger of God.

The second warmest part in The Acadians is made up of three lines of Grady’s Freudian black-snake/mother dream: “Mother, catch my eyes. His mother laughs. She lets go of his arms and laughs.” I’m not sure why these lines affect me so much, but they do. What I really like about Perales is his ability to go from the perverse to the tender so smoothly.

Speaking of tenderness, the only wholly likable character in this “basket of deplorables” (or bucket of defectives) is Father Noé-Cyr, who, though he secretly considers Grady’s quadriplegia to be just comeuppance for his crime (particularly a bounced check with which he’d stiffed the church), is just a genuinely kind man. Concealing his homosexuality for obvious reasons, he’s attracted to a parishioner named Charlie Rochefort but never acts on his lust. Perales turns a cliché on its head again by sparing the Father the usual hypocrisy and, worse, pedophilia. Instead, we learn of his past experimentation with his cousin Benny, which isn’t a pride-worthy memory. “They learned to touch and explore each other barely moving,” goes the flashback narration, metaphorizing his current “paralysis” of identity and desire.

Father Noé-Cyr provides the third warmest passage in the book. After he hears Evie’s confession, he (or the narrator himself?) says, “May you accomplish all that your little heart desires. Dream too much and bind your senses. Get thee far away from home until that faraway is your home.”

The Acadians also showcases Perales’ taste for irreverent humor, and the whole book does have a strong comedic vibe. For example, the Deerpants Training Hospital’s full name is As the Deer Panteth for the Water Dispensary for the Infirm (taken from the Bible’s 42nd Psalm). Also, short author/narrator asides are interspersed throughout the book: “A Word About Karma,” “A Word About Prayer,” “A Word About Islam,” “A Word About Ben & Jerry’s Cake Batter Flavored Ice Cream,” “A Word About Mitsou, the Singer,” A Word About Joe,” A Word About the Vixen 21 Motorcoach” and “A Word on the Omnipotency of God.” Most of the Words are humorous, such as bashing the batter-flavored Ben & Jerry’s as tasting “like shit,” but the one that denies God’s existence stabs with a profound, disturbing statement: “We are alone. We are afraid.” As if that’s not enough to shake the soul, I was left with the grim notion that some of us might die, as one of The Acadians’ characters does, while watching the shitty 10,000 B.C. remake.