Review: Out of Their Minds: The Incredible and (Sometimes) Sad Story of Ramón and Cornelio by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite
Books about music are pretty common. This makes sense, though: music inspires visceral reactions from people, and people want to capture those feelings on paper. Sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn’t. Out of Their Minds by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite luckily falls into the category of ‘working well.’ Even though I am categorically unfamiliar with norteño music—a music style native to northern Mexico and the southwestern US that features a twelve-string guitar and an accordion—Crosthwaite captures the splendor and sorrow that music can bring, and the urgency it fills people with.
Out of Their Minds follows lifelong best friends turned bandmates Cornelio and Ramón, their rise to fame with their band Relámpagos de Agosto, the rockstar life, and their eventual falls from grace. The twist is that Cornelio is no ordinary song writer: he’s made a pact with God. God writes the songs and Cornelio performs them. The novel handles that divine fact with a certain casualness. The writing has a similar quality: it is both conversational and lyrical, something unique and special presented as if it was ordinary.
The writing, combined with the non-standard way the novel is presented, gives the whole experience a grand feeling. The chapters themselves are short and to the point: Cornelio and Ramón in the hotel room, talking about how you can tell a good woman by her feet; a drunk Ramón telling his bottle of whiskey that his accordion, Marilú, doesn’t love him anymore; Cornelio locking himself in a closet to avoid the outside world. Song titles (like “Your Beautiful Eyebrows”, “Hope Your Mother Doesn’t Find Out” or “I Give You This Little Bit of Soap”), interviews, promotional materials, and letters are interspersed through the chapters. Each of these things come together to make the novel feel so much bigger than the sum of its parts.
Just as the novel feels bigger than the parts that compose it, the music in Out of Their Minds ends up being something so much larger than the people who make it. The music left an odd destruction in its wake, full of sports cars, fashion models, and alcoholism. Divine intervention is responsible for the success of the two most notable norteño musicians: Cornelio and his idol, Jose Alfredo. Yet both arrangements end up seeming Faustian by the end of the novel, as both men end up lonely and weathered because of the fame. One chapter is repeated four separate times throughout the novel—“Live and Let Die”—where idol-turned-friend Jose Alfredo dies in a variety of tragic ways. Each time, Cornelio is present to hear his last words, which are always the same: “I used to talk to Him too.” Each time it comes off like a deathbed confession of a lifelong sin.
But the music is undeniably worth the trouble. It has the ability to heal people, to make people remember or forget, to laugh, cry, dance, sing, or riot. It moves people. Crosthwaite writes, “In the hands of Ramón and Cornelio that song will fill for a few seconds the hole that grows in the hearts of men. And there will be no darkness. And there will be no loneliness. And there will be no silence.” Out of Their Minds is sad in its own way, but just like the music of the Relámpagos de Agosto, it lifts your spirits regardless. Not all songs that make you happy are happy songs.
For more information, or to purchase a copy, please visit Cinco Puntos Press’s website.
Out of Their Minds: The Incredible and (Sometimes) Sad Story of Ramón and Cornelio
Luis Humberto Crosthwaite (translated by John Byrd)
October 15, 2013
Trade Paperback Original
Posted: Sep 25, 2013
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