- The Last Reader
- Texas Tech University Press, 188 pp.
The Death of Reality
Available in English for the first time, David Toscana’s award-winning novel, The Last Reader, is a desert noir of sorts—a Twin Peaks set in a small town in Mexico where it hasn’t rained for a year, and no one but the librarian reads books. This librarian, Lucio, is the strange protagonist following his own strange logic, both when it comes to shelving his books and when he must deal with real-life situations. In fact, he often turns to the fictions lining his shelves for inspiration.
Take the case of the girl’s body found at the bottom of his son, Remigio’s, well. A beautiful girl, even in death, she holds a power over the young man who, despite his innocence, fears arrest. He turns to his father for help. But instead of offering advice, fatherly or otherwise, Lucio refers him to an obscure novel. The dust jacket reads “a man tries at all costs to hide the crime he committed, but will be surprised when the victim finds a way to accuse him from the other world.” Remigio mimics the novel’s plot line, burying the girl’s body beneath his avocado tree.
What follows, a strange love story between Remigio and the dead girl, entwined with Lucio’s enigmatic encounters with the girl’s grieving mother, is emblematic of Toscana’s realismo desquiciado, or “unrestrained realism.” Supposedly in direct opposition to traditional magical realism, Toscana’s style reads like psychoanalysis gone wrong. Readers become infested by the unhealthy, yet oddly liberating, behaviors and thoughts of father and son in the same way the rejected books are slowly consumed by roaches in the “WITHDRAWN” room:
…mandibles that tenaciously disintegrate book covers, dust jackets, authors’ and authoresses’ photographs with the intellectual pose of the former and the wishful beauty of the latter…a roach depositing its minute brown ovules upon a murky sentence of Soledad Artigas…or leaving its tiny turds upon characters like Raul Sarabia.
Lucio calls this room of discarded, unworthy books “hell,” and in fact such a fate would be hell for the “great writers” he despises. But Lucio has no patience for the maudlin, the clever, or the overly stylized. Rather, he loves, and keeps, those works which have some bearing on or connection to his particular experience. In this way, Lucio perpetuates Toscana’s dedication to unrestrained realism.
This is not to say that the novel is particularly realistic. In fact, as the police investigating the missing girl circle ever closer to him, Remigio enters a fugue state. During this time, he carries on what can only be called a sexual relationship with her essence, transferred through tree roots to the avocados. In fact, it begins the night he buries her, when he “goes to the tree and feels the avocados in the darkness until he finds the smoothest one; he strokes it.” As the avocado tree produces an insane bounty of fruit during the drought, Remigio fears he will be found out. But more, he becomes possessive of the fruit, as if each piece were a bit of the girl that, in death, belongs to him.
Lucio possesses the girl in a different way. In his mind, she becomes Babette, the doomed protagonist of yet another novel. In fact, for most of the book, he and his son refer to the girl as “Babette,” without even bothering to discover her real identity. His references to this fictional crime in his interview with the police even lead to the arrest of Melquisedec, the water-carrier. The boundary between fiction and reality, which is already quite blurry, becomes even more indistinct when Babette’s mother, a black-clothed, literary femme fatale, comes to town. She admits to confusing the fictional Babette and her real daughter as well, and doesn’t seem very interested in finding her murderer.
At this point, the plot goes down a rabbit hole. In a sort of literary daze, Lucio’s understanding of reality disintegrates as he enters his own dream world. He relives the death of his beloved wife and retells the story of a fallen soldier at the Battle of Icamole, whose love letter is now enshrined in the local chapel. When rain finally comes to the parched town, dust turns violently into mud and Lucio loses it. He attacks a boy who reminds him of Bobby Masterson, another murderous fictional character:
Get up, you fat slob, he fetches him a kick with his bare foot, you don’t do that to a little girl, much less if it isn’t even to enjoy her. You should have been in Melquisedec’s place; the police would have loved torturing all that fat and those woman’s nipples of yours. You’d have good reason to holler for help…Another kick. The fat boy keeps lying there but without rolling, looking at Lucio in terror.
The stream-of-consciousness style and lack of quotation marks seen here is indicative of the entire novel. These techniques project to the reader the type of seamlessness in which Lucio and the other characters live. Violence and love, reality and myth, abundance and drought, life and death; these dichotomies mingle and mate, creating an alternate world extreme in its gorgeous, frightening possibilities. Toscana’s creations live in a Mexico forgotten by society, surrounded by the hostile beauty of the desert, a meal away from starvation. Is it any wonder that they retreat to their imaginations?
Or act out their fondest dreams, as Lucio does near the end of the novel. In an attempt to soothe the grieving mother, he brings her to the avocado tree to visit her child. Quoting The Death of Babette, he says, “Look at your daughter and see the sun, look at your daughter and see the earth; the sun is of God, the earth is the homeland, and Babette belongs to both.” He helps his son slaughter a goat as a sort of sacrifice. Lucio steals the soldier’s love letter from the chapel to fix a typo, as a kind of acceptance that the written word can fall somewhere between holy and “WITHDRAWN.” Finally, he renames his failing library in honor of the dead girl: Biblioteca Babette.
But has Lucio learned the difference between what is real and what is not? The novel is decidedly murky on that point. And in the end, it makes little difference, because we are left with the vivid images of Toscana’s own unrestrained reality which have risen to the top of the confusion like sweet cream: the slap of rain drops on hard-packed dirt, the din of cockroaches digesting books, a silky green avocado heavy on the branch, a love letter revised.