Sometimes we come across a story so worth reading, we just have to tell you about it even if it might be a little inconvenient for you to get ahold of it. This is one of those times…
Fuego De Juventud: A Novella by Kevin A. Gonzalez
Thinking about his father’s boat—the one they sailed together to the islands off Puerto Rico in happier times, the boat that is now dry-docked and crumbling—high school sophomore Tito tells us: “I’m not sure what happened. It’s like there was a time when everything worked, and now, it’s all broken and no one is fixing it.”
Tito’s observation, we come to learn, sums up not just the condition of the boat; it applies equally to the broken-family world in which Tito and his school friends live. In short, the adults around Tito and his friends have made a mess of things, leaving their kids to live in that mess. Friend Gaby’s father has pulled up stakes for Orlando and Gaby commits acts of self-sabotage hoping he will be shipped off to join him; Mamerto’s father is dead, murdered by thieves; Becquia hasn’t spoken to her father in weeks. Chupi, the jockey-sized driver of Tito’s school bus, is the only adult who takes any active interest in the experiences of Tito and his friends. But Chupi shows them no way out of the adolescent dystopia, only how to accept their lot and how to cope—which can sometimes mean alcohol and prostitutes, both of which Chupi supplies the boys for a fee.
Tito spends the school week with his mother. Weekends he spends in his father’s favorite bars playing darts and competing with the bar honeys for his father’s attention. His time in the bars appears on the surface (to us, as well as to Tito), glamorous, romantic, as he proves his mettle to the other gamblers and drinkers and is accepted as his own man, not just his father’s son. But as Tito becomes more adept at the bar culture as a way of bonding with his distracted father, Tito’s own future seems in danger of shrinking and his presence in the bar begins to smack of inevitability, as though he is auditioning for a permanent role after high school. It is natural for a son to want to follow in his father’s footsteps, but how tragic when those footsteps only lead as far as the nearest bar stool.
Gonzalez’s strength in this novella is his ability to reveal the darkness in these lives that exists beneath the bright surface. He gives his characters the trappings of structure and achievement—beachside apartments, Rolexes, rule-emphasizing school administrators—all the pieces that it takes to have functioning relationships and to thrive. It’s all there, but none of it works anymore. The adults are so absent, so ineffective, so burdened by their own unnamed pains and frustrations, it’s as though they created a world to bring their children into and then set that world on fire. Gonzalez patiently paints the scenes of this story and infuses them with a number of distinct voices. His characters come to life as unique, real, and individual people, they never feel like creations of the writer’s imagination. That fact is testament to how nimble and skillful an imagination Gonzalez has.
Read this if you like realistic fiction, literary fiction, coming-of-age stories. Gonzalez is a writer of power and wit, he has created characters with unique and engrossing voices and infused this sad story with enough dark humor to keep it a very entertaining read.
The story is published in the Winter 2015 issue of Mississippi Review. If you’re unable to get a copy of the review, Gonzalez also has a novella, Villa Boheme, available on Amazon as a Kindle Single. It features some of the same characters, including Tito, as Fuego De Juventud. Though we have yet to read it, if Fuego De Juventud is any indication, we anticipate good things. — ITP