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Don Dimaio of La Plata


Celebrating the 400th anniversary of the modern novel, Akashic Books publishes a Don Quixote for the era of graft: racketeering politicians, stolen elections, and total-bullshit recalls!

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Interview with Robert Arellano by Raul Deznermio

In your debut print novel, Fast Eddie, King of the Bees, it was apparent that you like to twist, fold, slice and dice language, often very playfully. In Don Dimaio of La Plata, you seem to have gone several steps further, essentially creating an English dialect/patois for certain sections of the book. What inspired this delving?

Growing up in a bilingual family is a great way to learn how to play with language. When I was four years old, my mother ran into the boys room (which is what my older brothers and I called the bedroom we shared) and shouted, “Guess what, Bobby! Your sister Ana is going to jail!” I started to cry and said, “But why?” My mother said, “Don’t cry. It’s a good thing,” and my brothers laughed while I cried harder. “What do you mean? That’s bad!” I thought my mother and brothers had gone crazy. “No no, it’s good. I know you’ll miss her, but she’ll be back.” Stuff like that. “But what did Ana do?” I pictured my sister robbing a bank, the only crime I understood, thanks to cartoons, where even murder is only temporary. “Why does she have to go to jail?” “Not jail!” my mother said, “Jale. Jale Juniversity.” It took a while to stop the tears and clear up the confusion after I asked, “What’s a juniversity?” Throughout my childhood, my parents, siblings, and I were always meta-listening, hearing what we thought people were saying and imagining what they were thinking in this cold, sharp-faceted tongue: ink-licks. To this day, I’m always eavesdropping on what’s on your mind. If my own baby-boy interpretation tends toward ludicrous, I hope it’s balanced cosmically by my sisters’ religious and my brothers’ business.

Every chapter in Don Dimaio is prefaced by a punning interpretation of an analogous section from Don Quixote. Samuel Putnam’s translations of Cervantes are transformed word by word into entire passages of homophones that I call ‘transfellations’. For instance, Putnam’s “A stew with more beef than mutton in it, chopped meat for his evening meal, scraps for a Saturday, lentils on a Friday, and a young pigeon as a special delicacy for Sunday, went to account for three-quarters of his income” becomes “A shrew with more cleave than buttons on her, flopped teats for his evening feel, harlots for a Saturday, rentals on Friday, and a young stripper as a special delicacy for Sunday, went to account for three-quarters of his sin-come.”

I first discovered that I was a transfellator ten years ago while working on a parody of the “Gospel According to Luke” in a subsection of Sunshine ’69, my online novel, titled the “Gobspill Occurring to Puke.” A few pages into the writing of Don Dimaio, I heard the voices transfellating in my head again. I believe the first phrases were ‘flicks of ribaldry’ for ‘books of chivalry’ and ‘night erotic’ instead of ‘knight errant’. Wordplay inspirations include Weird Al Yankovic, MC Paul Barman, Mad magazine, Wacky Packs and Garbage Pail Kids, novelists Guillermo Cabrera-Infante and Robert Coover, and the author and poet Keith Waldrop.

Ilan Stavans’s comments on the jacket of Don Dimaio made me understand that some of my obsession with homophonia comes naturally and probably even genetically. The piropo cubano, an innuendo rich with alliteration and suggestive imagery, is popular property where my family comes from. After his first stroke and for five more years until his death, it would take my father much stuttering and spitting to squeeze out a simple ‘no’ or ‘yes’. But one day, when I was in college, I drove through downtown Miami at lunch hour with my disabled dad, playing Sancho to his Quixote on a goose chase after one of his former divorce lawyers. We stopped at a traffic light and a mulata with nalgas bravas walked in front of the car. My father, seemingly without effort, chanted, ‘Si ella cocina como camina yo comere hasta las raspas.’ What did you say, I said, while he smiled wolfish-sheepishly and of course wordlessly, unable to repeat himself, but it didn’t matter because in fact I had heard, only couldn’t believe what I had heard. ‘If she cooks the way she walks I’ll eat the burnt rice from the bottom of the pot.’ Alongside the zinger he offered when I brought a girlfriend to Florida for a visit (‘You’re very beautiful; he doesn’t deserve you.’), this was the last complete sentence my father spoke to me.

Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote of La Mancha appears to have been a major inspiration in the language and content of the book. How closely did you adhere to the story of Don Quixote when writing Don Dimaio?

Somewhere folded in with the origins of my Quixote transfellations, analogies began bobbing to the surface in the story of Don Dimaio’s madness: windmills became billboards, a lance turned into a flask, the giant was now an agent. Providence expat Shepard Ferry’s notorious Andre campaign provides an emblematic grotesque. And who should come along and ring at the back door of subconscious—”Goo moaning, jorona!”—but a spic chauffer who Dimaio rides like a jackass, Pancho Sanchez. Too good. There arose many more uncanny similarities between the two Dons that will please a careful reader of both Quixote and Dimaio. She (the novel Don Quixote) once told me, ‘My dear, I am such a great book that if I had not been born it would have been necessary for you to invent me.’

I sense more than a little Vincent “Buddy” Cianci (former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island; now serving time in prison) in the character of Don “Pally” Dimaio? Are you going to send a copy of the book to Buddy?

No way. My contract permits me only so many author copies. And besides, I don’t have to provide one for Buddy to read it. He has a lot of friends on the outside, including a few I interviewed while writing Don Dimaio, who send him everything with any relation that comes out in print. One F.O.B., who last summer was forced to use a razor blade on Mike Stanton’s Cianci biography, The Prince of Providence, told me it was a good thing Akashic will be printing Don Dimaio in paperback, as prisoners at the New Jersey federal penitentiary where they’re holding Buddy are allowed to receive only the guts of hardcovers. It has something to do with what you can hide in a spine. Fortunately, my book has no spine.

For your readings and other events to support the book, are you concerned that the stores will react negatively to the vulgarities of the story?

I’m concerned that any store representative might follow the lead of the Providence marketing manager for Borders who declined an event altogether. That’s why I’ve been calling as many stores as possible to let them know I plan an all-ages show, because I believe most booksellers will acknowledge that even an adult-theme story merits its share of conscientious publicity. I’m blessed with twelve nieces and nephews, and some of them will be coming out to the readings on this nationwide tour. For young people like them and for the sake of promotion, I’ll read sections that the whole family can enjoy at most bookstores. It’s kind of like editing a rated-PG trailer for an R-rated film. There are a few stores and nightclubs where the kind of clientele and the time of the event will permit me an unexpurgated reading. Atlas Bower in Providence, for instance, where I’ll headline an open-mic ‘Smut Nite’ on Sat., March 6.

Do you plan on wearing that toupee on the reading tour?

What toupee?

Two of your cover blurbs—from musician Will Oldham and Cuban novelist Daniel Chavarría—express concern about your physical safety upon publication of your book. When writing the book, were you consciously intending to ruffles feathers?

Two years ago, I, like a lot of Rhode Islanders who kept Cianci polls for both “presumption of guilt” and “popularity” simultaneously hovering around 70 percent, was ready to let the Plunder Dome investigation and trial pass me by like so much infotainment: reading a little in the ProJo every morning, watching ten minutes on the local news each night, shaking my head and tsking naughty politicians, yet ultimately shrugging and absolving all the dark, handsome scamps. Then I read about the schools department scheme. If you’re an educator like me and you hear that the kids have been sold out, that’s when it gets personal. When secondary graduation rates are down to about 50 percent and the schools are coerced into renting an empty warehouse from a crooked friend of the mayor for a million and a half, you immediately do the math and think of how many textbooks, teachers’ salaries, and dropout-prevention programs that racket could have funded. So I started writing a character whose greed permits him to reconcile or maybe even reject his own better conscience in order to pocket a few thousand in kickbacks. That said, it’s not just a token disclaimer when I assert that Pally Dimaio is not Buddy Cianci, but a satirical figure born of my broader experience swallowing so many scandals in this, what we might call the age of corruption.

Both of your print novels have been selections in the Akashic Urban Surreal series. Do you ever see yourself writing material that is more “straight”—with no surreal elements? And are the surreal elements of your work in part a function of your thirst for wordplay?

Yes and yes. That follow-up question is the kind that makes authors grateful for interviews, giving us a little forest-for-the-trees perspective on our motivations. This strikes me as a nice explanation for a writing process I experience purely compulsively: Yes, the decision to privilege wordplay over narrative is partly what gives the story a surrealistic shape. With both Fast Eddie and Don Dimaio, I made decisions to subordinate story not only formally to vagaries of language, but also structurally to major mythic templates (Oedipus and Don Quixote). A haberdasher metaphor, which I’ll leave it to the reader to assemble herself, might include the following elements: The story is felted cloth, language play is forced steam, and the myth is a hatform, the metal die on which the fedora is cast. (I don’t know if this is really how hats are made, but hopefully you get the idea.) Fit fabric over selected form, pressurize with steam, and out comes a hat—an urban surreal hat.

Back to the first part of your question: While writing Don Dimaio, and since 1998 when I started Fast Eddie, I’ve also been working on short stories that you could call straight or realistic, minimalistic even. One of these pieces was selected for the winter, 2002 “New Voices” issue of the Kenyon Review and another, “Hot Donuts Now,” was featured in the October, 2003 Jane magazine.

I understand you are of Cuban descent. Have you spent time in Cuba?

I have made ten trips to Cuba over the past decade, in a few cases leading cultural exchanges, such as the Rock the Blockade music exchange in 2000. On my last trip, I had the good fortune of meeting three other Akashic authors in one day: Daniel Chavarría, at his house in the shadow of the Havana Libre hotel, for a morning trago; Arnaldo Correa for a glass of wine and an afternoon tour of Regla, the greater-Havana home of the Santeria and Palo Monte movements featured in his triumphant novela policial (“detective novel”), Cold Havana Ground; and José Latour for an evening beer at his apartment near the Plaza de la Revolucion. Ron, vino, and cerveza: Daniel, Arnaldo, and José are all fine men who write hard and play with gusto.

Are you currently working on another book?

Yes, and two too many, to boot. I’ve been working on the manuscript of Havana Lunar, a novel I’d call policial-existential, since my first visit to Cuba in 1992. One hungry, hallucinatory, Havana night in the dark heart of the economically-ravaged periodo especial, a streetwalking jinetera rescues a revolutionary doctor from a Palo Monte curse and together they end up tangled in a violent and decadent black-market netherworld. Next is a collection of the straight-shooting short stories I mentioned earlier, titled The Yucatan Chix Club. And latest but not least (the way things go, it may even get to see print first), Dead in Desemboque, a graphic novel or literary comic book, depending on how you look at it, with devastating art by Don Dimaio illustrator Will Schaff. The texts for Dead in Desemboque were composed during my sabbatical last fall in Sonora, Mexico and owe their genesis to my discovery of—and by—the weekly pulp fiction/comics serials (with great titles like Frontera Violenta and El Libro de Vaquero) called semanales. The stories are autobiographical-fantastical, and a few of the allegories at play include author as cowboy, border territories as genres, writing as riding, expatriation as death. There will also be an online hypertext companion to Dead in Desemboque.

Any current musical endeavors?

Havanarama (with Jasper Speicher) is going strong with our latest rum-inspired, techno-wired CD, Havana Club. And in the year ahead you can look forward to the release of Last Songs, a collection of original tunes (with words from D. H. Lawrence’s Last Poems) to accompany Dead in Desemboque, as well as a solo project titled, Mr. Lovable (Bob Arellano is).