If you live in Santa Fe, you've probably stood somewhere you're not exactly welcome, holding a sign intended to provoke, shouting slogans with a bunch of like-minded activists. Jason Flores-Williams' latest novel, Character and Fitness, is an ode to the righteous indignation in all of us.
Given that Tunisia's jasmine revolution has sent ripples of rebellion around the globe--even inspiring parallel, if ideologically distinct, protests here in New Mexico--it seems an apt time to hearken back to where such protests are first born: within ourselves.
Flores-Williams, a lawyer based in Santa Fe, has three prior novels under his belt; his fourth, Character and Fitness, is a novella-esque examination of a few fraught months in the life of a young man caught in the crosshairs of ideology and reality. The novel will run in installments in the Brooklyn Rail, the New York culture digest. To read online, click on the chapters listed at the bottom of SFR's review.
Neal de la Vega, a New Mexico boy who left the state years before the novella takes place to seek out the pith of life--via sex, art, social justice, drugs and philosophy--finds himself eight months into unemployment in the armpit of Philadelphia, living off his nurse-girlfriend's salary despite his law degree, and slipping not-so-gradually into despair and self-loathing.
De la Vega's existence is mundane, painted by the author in quotidian dialogue and shades of gray. The arc of the story is simple: de la Vega has been unemployed and poor for going on nine months, and he doubts his adherence to social justice and, along with it, the path he's taken. The various characters who parade through the story serve as Dickensian milestones, reminding him of his true self and warning him of the dangers of self-betrayal.
Where the story falters is in these characters. De la Vega's bitingly witty girlfriend, Rachel, though appealing, lacks her own identity and serves mostly as de la Vega’s foil. Other characters are more shallow--Rachel’s smugly successful brother, who is patently unable to see the value of de la Vega’s ideological stances; Drew Majerus, the classic “sell-out” who has taken the corporate job and his attractive, accomplished, cardboard friends; even Joe, a Target employee who plays video games with de la Vega. Since so much attention is devoted to de la Vega’s soul, the author’s inattention to the other characters’ souls is frustrating. However, this story is about de la Vega, not the swirl of life that happens, unbidden, around him.
The story’s other failing is its ideological heels-digging via the constant portrayal of “us” versus “them.” Corporations and their law firms are evil; people eating dinner at a country club are “war profiteers”; even making money--a goal de la Vega isn’t sure whether he should have--is portrayed as “selling out.” These viewpoints rankle not because they are untrue, but rather because they are tropes. Williams’ ability to delve deeply and meaningfully into de la Vega’s life and character is proof that he’s capable of imbuing other characters--and their (perhaps abhorrent) values and viewpoints--with more life.
The story’s climax comes when de la Vega is offered a high-paying job at one of the corporate law firms he’s taught himself to despise. Much of Williams’ energy is devoted to whether de la Vega should take the job--he’s unemployed; he needs it; he could finally “provide for” his girlfriend--or adhere to his old, screw-the-man values. At times, de la Vega’s introspection borders on masturbatory. At others, though, it is nothing less than an eloquent examination of what creates an identity--and, in de la Vega's case, its ability to withstand fundamental challenges.
But for all de la Vega’s talk about social justice and human rights, he is lain bare as a man of options--a man who actually has the luxury of turning down a job most of his law school classmates would have killed for.
De la Vega's saving grace is his self-awareness. In a confrontation with Joe, the proverbial everyman, he gains humility and realizes how his navel-gazing comes across to people with fewer choices in life. His very imperfection makes de la Vega profoundly human character--and one to whom today's world, reinvigorated and newly aware of our own rights and powers, will relate.
Photo: Missy Wolf