Roy Kesey's debut novel, Pacazo, begins engagingly enough. The narrator, John Segovia, is set up as a latter-day conquistador: meaning, like many expatriates before him, he teaches English as a foreign language.
Segovia is an American with congenital visa problems living in Piura, Peru. He is overweight, overeducated, and the doting father of a baby girl, Mariangel. More importantly, his beloved Peruvian wife, Pilar, has been brutally raped and murdered. The crime unsolved, Segovia has unravelled. It's our task to keep up with him, a task that can prove wearying.
The pacazo of the title is a type of very large iguana, one that happens to live in the trees that surround the university Segovia teaches at. The pacazo defecates on English instructors below and, apparently, subsists on foxes the size of house cats. It crunches their skulls. Further, on the first page of the novel, Segovia posits that the pacazo is also something of a "petty, bitter, local god who hates fat pillaging strangers". The question unanswered for the remaining 500 pages is whether the pacazo could possibly hate the fat, pillaging narrator more than the said narrator hates himself.
Pacazo is one of the more extraordinary messes of a novel I've read in recent years. Make no mistake: Kesey is a remarkable and serious writer. Stylistically, he sometimes approaches the same category as Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy; he is very clearly a poet, and conspicuously original. However, one gets the sense that he doesn't yet have his talent under tight enough control.
Segovia's story, for all its salient detail, is the most maddening aspect of the novel. It shouldn't be - it is partly a murder mystery, after all - but the story is overwhelmed by its own telling, and sometimes it feels as if Kesey had to inject a narrative in order to justify his historical obsessions and linguistic backflips.
Segovia spends his days teaching English, and his nights and weekends on the edge of violence, hunting down the taxi driver he last saw his wife with, the man he supposes to have killed her. He descends into a highly literate madness, his present sharpening "its knife on the whetstone of the past", leading our latter-day conquistador to grave-robbing and, finally, much worse. But he has friends, a lovingly sketched out and eccentric bunch, and, in the end, he stumbles upon the kind of hope and resolution that a new love can bring.
But there is simply something too affected and written about the narrator. Memories and tenses change mid-sentence, from walking down a street looking at taxis to expounding on Latin American history.
History is weaved into the fabric of the narrative and is, at first, a fascinating and understandable facet of the character's psychological arsenal, a coping mechanism for someone who has experienced the unthinkable, but the historic digressions quickly become stultifying hard to follow without a pre-knowledge of the region's history or easy access to Wikipedia. It is difficult to know whether to blame the character or the author for this narrative tic.
At one point Segovia views paintings and sketches "so beautiful that [his] stomach starts to ache". I'm all for the limitlessness of experience, both internal and external, and of anything being possible in fiction, but in this novel such things feel undigested and unearned. Let's face it, do people really get stomachaches caused by beautiful art? Maybe, but Kesey hasn't convinced me; and, unreliable narrator or not, it makes you question the reality of the story being told, rudely pushing you out of it.
Importantly, strangely, Pacazo ended up being one the best travel books I've ever read. Taken as travel writing, the novel is tremendous. Frankly, my copy is scarred with underlines, and not-so-occasional "wows", almost all of which have to do with the hilarious, moving and gorgeous way Kesey evokes place and culture.
His exploration of the expatriate life is pitch-perfect and is easily recognisable to anyone who has ever lived far from home, immersed in another culture or language. Visiting a hairdresser, Segovia is attacked by a bee. Confusing the Spanish word for bee, he says, "I told them that everything was fine, that there had been a sheep caught in my beard, but it hadn't stung me. They began to laugh. I told them the truth: that it had been a very large sheep."
Or what expat hasn't come across this sort of hard-won, infuriating wisdom? "A Peruvian who pauses before saying Yes is in fact saying No. This took me two years to learn, was a source of much frustration, but does no harm once everyone involved knows the code."
In fact, some of the prose has the feel and lovely degradations you get with language seepage, and though the book is entirely in English, it is a given that most of the time John is speaking Spanish with his friends. For example, "Vigils end when dawn is unambiguous," the first line from part two, is both rather lovely and also reminds one of the unexpectedly potent results you sometimes get when a second language begins to possess your first. Pacazo is permeated with this sense of linguistic possibility.
Culturally, Kesey - for it does start to seem more like the author than his ascribed narrator, John Segovia - brings Peru and Latin America to life through humour and muted, exacting wonder. Piura is a place where most of the newspapers "devote themselves to sports and extraterrestrials and nearly naked women", and residents take photographs in the cinema whenever there is a flash of nudity on the screen. (A cinema, itself, full of bats, mosquitoes and fleas. Insects in improbable places feature rather prominently in Pacazo.) It is also a place where one might purchase a llama foetus to cure cancer, German cultists await the end of the world, dead cockroaches are removed from babies' noses, and television has "the least funny comedians of any time or place".
Late in the novel, Segovia replies to a character who asks how he doesn't believe in God, with this: "Biologically each of us is pointless. And we cannot bear being pointless. So we create a point by placing ourselves in stories that grow ever longer."
Roy Kesey's ambitious and infuriating Pacazo is a story that grew too long and, in doing so, may have missed the point entirely. By the end you feel as if you've been on a journey, just not exactly John Segovia's. It's hard to wholeheartedly recommend it as a novel, but as an example of contemporary travel writing, I can think of few better, more eccentric examples.
Tod Wodicka is the author of the novel, All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. He lives in Berlin where he is at work on his second novel, The Household Spirit.