By Lise Funderburg
November 2, 2003
Never has bigotry, smallness of mind, mendacity or mean-spiritedness been as disarming as in Edgardo Vega Yunqué’s sprawling novel, “No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Gauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again.”
A lengthy succession of flawed but sympathetic characters populates the 638-page tale, bumping up against one another with raw wounds and long-held resentments and, to a person, the fundamental desire to love and belong. Accurately self-described as “symphonic,” the book also weaves together history, ethnicity, war, identity politics and generational conflict.
The world of the novel revolves around Vidamía Farrell, who inherits, through no fault or design of her own, a family of idiosyncratic and supremely American complexity — Southern and Northern; Puerto Rican, black and white; rich and poor. Vidamía is a smart and well-mannered only child raised in the posh suburb of Westchester County’s Tarrytown. Vidamía’s mother, Elsa, and stepfather, Barry, are upper-middle-class Puerto Ricans who take their daughter on holidays abroad and who both profess ethnic pride but keep a distance from their humble roots in the Manhattan neighborhoods of Harlem and the Lower East Side. Elsa, whose disappointment in life leaks through every pore, also keeps the subject of her daughter’s biological father at a distance — other than to divulge the fact that he was Caucasian.
At the age of 12, consumed with curiosity, Vidamía sets out to find him, and armed with only his name and the destination of Yonkers, she succeeds.
At this point, Vega Yunqué’s story is off and running. The near-fearless Vidamía discovers the Irish-American Billy Farrell, a loving but deeply troubled father physically and emotionally debilitated by the Vietnam War. Billy leads her to a passel of blond stepsiblings and a stepmother, all of whom readily accept her into their hardscrabble life in Manhattan’s not yet gentrified Alphabet City. To her mother’s building resentment, Vidamía begins to straddle the two worlds, spending summers and holidays with her newly discovered relatives. She tries to save her father from his suffering, deciding that he should return to being the piano player he was before he lost two fingers in combat.
Dissonance simmers under the surface of interactions: Elsa, a psychologist, uses the rhetoric of her profession to warn Vidamía away from her father, although the truth is that Elsa disdains Billy’s lower-class status. Elsa similarly tries to keep Vidamía from her paternal grandfather, when in fact Elsa’s problem with him is that he’s too rooted in Puerto Rican culture and too linked by his features to African ancestry. Vidamía’s paternal grandmother, in turn, has hated all Puerto Ricans for decades, ever since her husband was shot dead by two of them in a bar heist.
If Vidamía’s coming-of-age serves as the book’s melody line, the harmonies and counterpoints come from the other characters, whose histories are offered up in decades and even centuries. Musical allusions abound: The author, a fan of jazz, anchors several of his characters in that world, weaving into the plot line real-life musicians; Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis are peripheral but pivotal figures.
Vega Yunqué’s passion for his characters is deep but begins to wear after a time. At some point, the introduction of a new character leaves the reader bracing herself for an inevitable and long digression into the newcomer’s family history. More likely than not, there will be some curious and coincidental connection to one of the other characters in the book. We are family, Vega Yunqué hammers home, but by page 500 or so, the effect is simply a pounding. The world is a dangerous place, is another heavy leitmotif, and the storyline is riddled with episodes of incest, rape, cruelty, murder and threat.
Yet another casualty of the book’s length is its treatment of racial conflict. While the issue arises organically early on, embedded in events and actions, it evolves into a series of diatribes as the book progresses. Lengthy arguments between Vidamía and her African-American boyfriend, for example, read more like a thesis defense than conversation, and the actual relationship between the two falls out of focus as they joust about their beliefs.
But where the length of the book is one of its greatest flaws, it is also one of its more compelling features. The length comes from the author’s wanting to do right by his characters, bringing them fully to life, breathing life into them by the lungful. He is determined to accord them the personality quirks and layered backgrounds that will make them dimensional and not just flat cut-outs, ethnic stereotypes.
In this regard, he succeeds brilliantly. The result is juicy, sprawling and, at the book’s end, satisfying.