Francisco Goldman: The Ordinary Seaman

Pity the poor immigrant. Once the fortunate pilgrim waiting patiently at our gates, he's now the ungrateful stranger elbowing into our bounty, resisting the melting pot, provoking epithets and legislation from the already-settled. What to make of all those Nike-deprived masses yearning to breathe free in a Pizza Hut? Admit it: you haven't felt comfortable with "aliens" since Henry Ford busted the pious sod, John Wayne led the wagon trains west to steal the red man's land and seed it with WalMarts, every city kid could grow up to be James Cagney, or write "I Remember Mama."Which -- apart from the haunting prose -- is what makes Francisco Goldman's "The Ordinary Seaman" so remarkable; it's the immigrant's tale told from the other side, updated with death squads and contras, so many reflections in a black olive eye. Fifteen Central American men have been brought north to recondition a rusting hulk that was once a sea-going freighter. Restricted to the ship, stuck below decks, these laborers -- "ordinary seamen" -- scrape and paint and spin tales as desolate Brooklyn twinkles behind them like a lethal Oz, its streets paved with gold and crack vials.We listen to fat Panzon, and the macho one they call El Barbie, and El Tinieblas with his prison tattoos, and Cebo, and El Faro. But most of all we listen to Esteban, the nineteen-year-old ex-Sandinista, waiting to meet his fate. Instead he'll meet Joaquina, a Mexican and a manicurist and a muse, the perfect Beatrice to lead him into the many-circled cul de sacs of hope and hell just beyond the docks.Circular too is Goldman's prose: it twists back on itself like a snake biting its tail, the moist jungles of Nicaragua appearing and disappearing, until we find ourselves lost in the sex and sweat and the swagger of the book, always mindful of a city death waiting in ambush under the rainforest flowers."A woman doesn't want your resentments, jealousies, your crazy bad thoughts, save them for the cantina, companeros, or for that sad song you're going to write, set it to music and then pretend to doesn't belong to you." That's the advice a lover gives Esteban. But Goldman takes it: his novel is a sad song, and a brave one, but most of all it belongs to us, as burglar bars go up on the windows of the grain-fat culture, and a security buzzer is screwed into the Golden Door. ""The Ordinary Seaman" is rich and tantalizing, and it offers insight into the motivation of all those exiles from Gringoland, bobbing in the uncertain present, waiting to enter the City of Donald Trump and God.

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