BLAZING SUNBURSTS AND HOWLING MONKEYS: David Winner with Andrea Scrima
David Winner’s debut novel The Cannibal of Guadalajara, winner of the 2009 Gival Press Novel Award, is a powerful tale of an unlikely ménage-à-trois between Alfred (caught in the stranglehold of a mid-life crisis), his ex-wife Margaret, and a disturbed young man from Brooklyn. The book reads like a fable told by an omniscient, tenderly ironic narrator; the tone fluctuates between discreet indulgence in the characters’ foibles and a drier, more distanced sort of wit. The divorce propels Alfred to Latin America on a soul-searching quest-of-a-lifetime and Margaret to a teeming singles bar downtown, where she meets the considerably younger Dante, who turns out to be crippled by post-traumatic flashbacks to his Mexican childhood. Winner’s controlled language is interspersed with adroitly incongruous adjectives that illuminate the absurdities he presents in ways that are psychologically subtle and often hilarious. But it’s also a book about American culture seen through the eyes of a writer who has spent enough time traveling through Latin America to alter his frame of cultural reference enough to identify and appraise that peculiar brand of American expatriate whose most ardent wish is to be reborn as Che Guevara.
Steeped in cliché, Alfred’s email report from Ecuador makes his ex-wife cringe:
I will indeed need an Indian guide. He will wear modern clothes but have native intuition. He will guide me through blazing sunbursts, pools of insects, howling monkeys, and slithering snakes as far into the thick underbrush as I can stand.
But when Winner ridicules Alfred, he is poking fun at himself—and at any one of us that has ever dreamed of escape. Alfred’s hatred of American blandness leads him on a desperate quest to reclaim a part of his soul that hasn’t been entirely sanitized, co-opted, rationalized, corrupted, or cowed by our mercantile society:
The new lives upon which they had been embarking in the raw but possibility-filled bankrupt city seemed dim and terribly dull. Their days on the loud mariachi buses and in the tiled hotels with their open courtyards and sour-smelling bathrooms, the hilly silver cities, the sleepy beach towns had ganged up together to knock his normal life aside, leaving it lying dreary and pallid on the ground.
Strangely somnambulant despite all her entrepreneurial self-sufficiency, Margaret seems more concerned with scoring points with her pouty gay friend Brian than in confronting her true feelings:
It takes him a while to come, and Margaret can’t really comment upon what it’s like for herself. More touching, perhaps, than physically exciting, his urgent, sincere young face bobbing up above her like a child going around a carousel.
Wily as a cat, however, she swindles both Brian and her therapist, portraying her sexual encounter with Dante as a triumph while minimizing her emotional involvement. Eventually, however, she recognizes her pivotal position between these two wildly different, difficult—yet inexorably similar men.
Embedded in its fabric like one of the faintly sour odors that triggers Dante’s furious fits is a wry criticism of American culture with its half-hearted marriages and disintegrating families. But The Cannibal of Guadalajara is above all a road trip through the nightmares and wet dreams of middle-aged disaffection, regret, and redemption.
The following interview took place in the form of an email correspondence between myself and David Winner:
Andrea Scrima (Rail): Congratulations on winning the Gival Press Novel Award for The Cannibal of Guadalajara. I was immediately taken in by the opening scene, in which Margaret, a 50-something divorcée, stands anxiously around at a singles event and is soon approached by the young Dante. The love life of a middle-aged Manhattanite woman isn’t exactly material one would expect from a male American writer.
David Winner: The idea of the 50-something Margaret struggling to stay on her feet at a loud, overwrought Meatpacking District nightclub did not stem from something that happened to me personally, but it seemed as real to me as a nightmare. I empathized with her enough to feel a tad guilty putting her through it. I was also interested in bringing together two vastly different New York experiences: the working class Central American one and the upper- middle-class white North American (in this case Jewish) one. New York City is still spoken of as a melting pot and/or a mosaic, but I would lay enormous odds against any New Yorker of Margaret’s ilk hanging for more than the moment it took to pick up an order or ask for change with a working class Central American. Dante turns out not to be working class, which makes it a little more believable.
Rail: Margaret’s chief emotional motive for continuing her liaison with the young Dante is to prolong her Friday evening visits to his family, whose warmth she basks in like a child longing to be cared for, while Alfred retreats to Latin and South America with a dog-eared guidebook in search of something “real.”
Winner: I have a sense that some Americans see their culture as too distant, mechanical, and cold—and yearn for other countries that they imagine to live healthier, warmer, more familial lives, particularly when we’re talking about the “south”—southern Europe, Latin America, etc. In a way, the book is about opening up a stereotypically “southern” family and finding some strange and wonderful dysfunction, the idea of warmth and openness not exactly exploded, but certainly complicated.
Rail: The American characters you present—Margaret, Brian, her ex-husband Alfred—seem doomed to a peculiar form of adolescence. Is your book a diagnosis of American culture suspended in perpetual puberty?
Winner: Not exactly puberty, but definitely insecurity. Characters that are confident, mature, and know what they want don’t interest me as much, as their paths are too linear and predictable. Like so many writers, I’m interested in the weakness, the lack of surety you find when you scratch under the surface of even more resolute characters.
Rail: The book abounds in literary references—the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, Nabokov, Noel Coward’s play Blithe Spirit—but the most obvious of all is Dante Alighieri. I find myself wondering what inferno—beyond the source of his own private torment—Dante’s guides lead him to when the threesome travel to Guadalajara. How symbolic is the name you’ve given to Alfred’s and Margaret’s furious “non-child”?
Winner: Many of these references are meant to reflect Alfred and Margaret’s overly literate, intellectualized sensibility. Margaret sees a huge emotional issue of her life, childbearing, reflected in a story she read in college, “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway, a writer she doesn’t even like very much. Alfred quotes weird bits of Vallejo at random. But, of course, I have to take responsibility for the naming of Dante. I was not intending direct symbolism, but more of a throwing something up into the air and seeing how it landed. Yes, Dante is led around by two characters, Alfred and Margaret, who sort of switch off between Virgil and Beatrice and indeed journey into a kind of family inferno. But what happens when he gets there and whether there may or may not be a paradise awaiting them is up to the reader to decide.
Rail: The hell of the Mexican feudal past seems to resonate deeply in the book, bouncing awkwardly against Alfred’s liberal leanings—yet Dante’s fury seems to make him a truer heir to his uncle Leopoldo than any of his Guadalajaran relatives. Even as an octogenarian, the “cannibal” still threatens to devour his nephew alive. Is there a submerged political commentary here on the unhappy relationship between the Americas?
Winner: There are no known cannibals in my wife’s Neapolitan family, but events in the distant Italian past still haunt their American present. Big fat Greek or Italian or Mexican or anyone else’s weddings are, I would imagine, attended by a fair number of ghosts. The notion of immigration as a never entirely successful attempt to outrun our ghosts was perhaps more on my mind than overarching thoughts about the two Americas, though as I said before, North American stereotyping and dismissing of Latin America was never far from my mind.
Rail: At one point in the story, alone in Ecuador on an urgent mission, Alfred embarks upon a search for a native to guide him to the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca.
Winner: Yes, this section of the novel is based, in part, on the fact that at least some Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon tourist packages actually include ayahuasca so that the Western traveler can feel he or she is having some sort of genuine indigenous experience. I was told in Ecuador that ayahuasca can trigger psychotic behavior. Several times, apparently, married European or American couples needed to be separated to avoid hurting each other after taking it. I wanted to see what would happen if I sent my already unhinged character into that treacherous psychic place.
Rail: While one of the things I most like about the book is the fact that it can be interpreted in a multiplicity of ways, the characters of Alfred and Dante can also be read as different parts of a conflicted personality. If I imagine the story as the self-ironic construction of a Latin America enthusiast projecting himself (and his dilemma) into the future and discovering in alarm that he has the markings of an Alfred-in-the-works—given to self-absorbed and frequently ludicrous musings—then the figure of Dante becomes his younger, smoldering, “Latin” self in a “marital threesome” of the Afro-Brazilian kind Alfred had written about so fervently in graduate school. Is the author of the construction asking for female indulgence in his various different selves?
Winner: If you’re asking what role I (the author of the construction) have in all this, you should probably ask the women in my life about myself and female indulgence. But I can describe two experiences of mine that certainly informed the novel:
One involves the relationship of Americans to a non-American culture. In a way, I was exploring the passionate Italophilia on my father’s side of the family. I guess that started when my father’s father was a reporter for many years in Italy; he was the first American to interview Mussolini, whom my grandfather admired but later renounced. I have a photograph of Mussolini with the foreign press corps in the late ’20s and my grandfather standing right next to him. I’ve always been interested in his initial romanticized vision of Mussolini, which came in part from being a privileged outsider.
But trying to more directly answer the question, I can certainly say the novel had a lot to do with notions of family. I’ve been married for eight years but have no children, and about the time the novel was being first written, my wife and I were thinking a lot about that. We were playing with different notions of marriage, parenting, and relationships. In our sometimes joyous, sometimes tortured ambivalence, we certainly imagined all sorts of unlikely models of family life, though nothing quite as weird as what happens in this novel.
Andrea Scrima is the author of A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2010).