No Matter How Much... by Edgardo Vega Yunque
For a reader holding a novel as hefty and audaciously titled as No Matter How Much… either panic or an inflated sense of the book’s worth is usually induced. Obviously, Edgardo Vega Yunqué must have aimed for the latter but ultimately succeeds in fatiguing the reader with heavy-handed melodrama within the book’s 636 small-margined pages. Its themes are explicitly stated right from its first page’s three paragraphs -- a theme per paragraph if you will -- ethnic identity, family, and jazz music.
This sprawling novel actually hides a fairly simple story that revolves around one Vidamia Farrell. When we first meet her she is a bright and precocious girl of 12 living in the suburbs of New York City with her wealthy mother and stepfather. Vidamia is half-Puerto Rican and half Irish; her curiosity about the last name she inherited drives her to seek her absent biological father, Billy Farrell. One thing leads to another and she meets Billy, “who she both admired and pitied once she got to know him.” It’s not at all surprising that her status-conscious mother, Elsa Santiago, has issues with her daughter seeking out her father.
Vidamia pities Billy because he is haunted by his experience in the Vietnam war. He walks with his “eyes downcast and spirit beaten, his body bending under the weight of whatever demons he endured.” Those demons were born from surviving a skirmish in a rice paddy. She learns that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and guilt over the death of “his homeboy, his reefer smoking main man” Joey Santiago in the ambush. Billy is wounded psychologically and physically -- in the skirmish that took Joey’s life Billy loses two fingers on his right hand. The missing fingers are a constant reminder to him of the loss of Joey and music in his life.
We come to understand that that the teenage Billy was a jazz piano prodigy who chose to fight in Vietnam over touring and recording with Miles Davis. Vega Yunqué lets us glimpse Billy in flashback meeting jazz greats and impressing them all with his technique, despite his blond hair and blue eyes. As implausible as it seems he wants the reader to believe that the 18 year old Billy would not seek deferment to instead tour with the greatest ensemble in jazz at the time. Every time he has Billy look at his mutilated hand and sigh one gets the impression that Billy doesn’t seem to understand this either.
Vega Yunqué overstuffs the next several hundred pages with everything from the histories of the Irish Farrell and Puerto Rican Santiago clans, voodoo in 19th century New Orleans, Billy meeting his Southern wife and siring three streetwise children, detailing with far too much energy how vile a gang he calls “The Four Horsemen of Avenue B” can be, and a host of other distracting back stories and half-baked set pieces. By page 300 or so it is a foregone conclusion that Vidamia will reconcile with her high strung mother and get her father to play music again. The rest is filler, padded to the brim with Vega Yunqué’s philosophizing through his characters about race, music and war.
Burdening the reading are two distinct prose styles that seem at odds with one another. One is conversational and seemingly mimics the improvisational horn playing of the classic jazz musicians whose names he keeps sprinkling in. Consider this paragraph dealing with the sexual awakening of one of Billy’s daughters:
[Cookie] had done it with Mario and it wasn’t such a big deal. He enjoyed it and she did sometimes but not that often and she’d asked her mother and Lurleen said that she was still too young but that she should just enjoy her life and not get pregnant because that would certainly tie her down, and she agreed and was very careful and she went with Lurleen and got contraceptive pills and made Mario swear that he wasn’t seeing anyone else and he swore and she believed him because he was so crazy about her and all he did was go to Stuyvesant High School and study and play handball with his Chinese friends over at the Essex Street playground, and nobody could tell he was part Rican because other Chinese had curly hair and their skin was a little dark.In a chapter dully titled ‘Jazz’ the other style reads like bad Jose Saramago:
All dreams, if they are to benefit the dreamer, must be hopelessly complex and barely retrievable, but most all they must be incongruous. Upon hearing of a dream, someone other than the dreamer may complain of the implausibility of the psychic concoction or the incongruity of its structure, or else remark that it bears little connection to the exterior reality of the dreamer. Such critiques do not matter, since the dreamer is the person responsible for the genesis of the dream and stands to gain the most from its occurrence.
Vega Yunqué clearly loves his characters and he has a gift for the street-wise dialogue of his Nuyorican homeboys and homegirls. His evocation of the culture clash inherent in many multi-ethnic and multi-generational families is convincing and refreshing. If only No Matter How Much… were downsized by a diligent editor its charms could be easier digested.
No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again: A Symphonic Novel by Edgardo Vega Yunqué
Farrar Straus & Girroux