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The Providence Journal
Definitely Not In Kansas Anymore
By ELLEN WERNECKE
12 December 2004
*THE LAMENTABLE JOURNEY OF OMAHA BIGELOW INTO THE IMPENETRABLE LOISAIDA JUNGLE
* * *
Edgardo Vega Yunque's latest novel sounds like a travel epic, but The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle is a lot more than that. Set primarily in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the Lower East Side -- "Loisaida" in Spanglish -- the novel follows Kansas native and NYU dropout Omaha Bigelow in a postmodern romp through the lives of the neighborhood's various residents.
The story focuses on the Salsipuedes (in Spanish, "Leave if you can") family, whose 15-year-old Maruquita decides she wants Bigelow for herself. Maruquita, who has inherited her family's magical abilities, including shape-shifting, is able to get Omaha his job back at Kinko's and fulfill his fantasies, but his new-found confidence attracts the attention of more than a few women in the neighborhood.
Maruquita's mom, meanwhile, is raising a Puerto Rican army off the coast of Manhattan, hidden by her Star Trek-obsessed playwright son Samuel Beckett. The family and their friends become, in Vega Yunque's eyes, a lot more important than Omaha himself, whose quest to fund his independent film, The Unbearable Lightness of Being Omaha Bigelow, sets him on a collision course with WASP witch Winifred Buckley. Buckley and her blended Maine-based clan provide a hilarious, underused counterpoint to the Salsipuedes household.
To describe this novel in terms of its plot would be completely reductive. The cumulative effect of Lamentable Journey is much more like a cultural scrapbook, turning over former presidents, television shows and cultural stereotypes with dexterity. Topical questions like U.S.-P.R. relations and the bombing of Vieques, weave through the novel, occasionally stealing the foreground from its many memorable characters.
The final chapters, in particular - trumpeted as a "must read" by the book's publicists -- are weighted down by this unnecessary heaviness, Vega Yunque diverging from a wildly entertaining showdown to deliver a tiresome political message.
But overall, Vega Yunque's world is as complex as his title, and more whimsical than wearisome. A good escape during the holiday season.
Ellen Wernecke is a student at Brown University.