Years ago, I visited my brother in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he was attending St. John's College. I learned a few things on that trip, perhaps most notably that cutting a hole in the bottom of a jack-o-lantern carved from a giant pumpkin and wearing it on your head is one of the most miserable costumes you can imagine. It seemed such a simple idea that I wondered why more people didn't do it. In case you ever wonder the same thing for yourself, more people don't do it because 1) it is almost impossible to see out through a jack-o-lantern, no matter how big you make the holes, 2) a pumpkin large enough for your head to fit inside weighs about eight thousand pounds, 3) it is even more difficult to drink though than it is to see through, 4) your head is surrounded by a pumpkin, which are almost too hideously slimy to stick your hands inside while cleaning out; imagine wrapping that around your head, and 4) if you succeed in ignoring all these things and wear it around the party as if it were the easiest thing in the world (which you will do after spending 25 bucks on a vegetable and half a day trying to make it work), then drunk idiots will come up and ask if they can try it on, then realizing how horrible it is, they will point out all the aforementioned reasons it is a bad idea and give it back.
I didn't spend the entire trip with my head up the ass of a gourd, and one afternoon wandered into a delightful little book store. I love book stores, and recently had been delving into reading Latin American authors and here I found myself in this little out of the way shop specializing in Latino writers. I scooped up some Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a collection of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa and I also think this is where I bought my copy of nonfiction works by Jorge Luis Borges. I grabbed a couple of anthologies, some essays by Ocavio Paz, and God only knows what else. Seeing that I take more than a passing interest in the written word, the gentleman behind the counter struck up a conversation with me. He described all manner of intricacies of Santa Fe and the culture of the Southwest in general, and we started discussing Latin American literature. I told him I'd only just started delving in South American literature and asked him who he recommended. Hearing that I liked Borges (I just remembered, that is not where I bought his nonfiction works -they came to me via the used bookstore in Pensacola- I picked up his Labyrinths there), he recommended Julio Cortazar (which he pronounced "CorTAza", thankfully I had him write it down).
He was out of Cortazar at the moment, but he wrote the name for me on one of his cards which I buried in one of the books and found later. Searching used bookstores for his work, for a very long time I succeeded in only finding a very small collection of his short stories. The stories were vividly written, but also very dark. There was an ominousness that was hard to imagine and hard now to relay. These few short stories seared into my head the images from them, almost in a way that made me afraid to pick up another of his books. It wasn't that they were gory or really all that horrific, but the crispness with which the visuals were rendered contrasted so succinctly with the opacity of the greater story. They were more unsettling that horrific, but enough so that while I kept an eye out for more of his work I never entered into a determined search.
I eventually stumbled upon a copy of his novel The Winners. This ended up in a pile of books unread until this last Christmas I found that my sister's fiance had pulled it out of my collection. He didn't seem to be reading it; it was just waiting there glaring at me over the holidays until finally I packed it in my bags to help me get through the long days at sea.
Obviously I wouldn't be writing about it if I hadn't made good on my promise of action and finally read the book. This introductory commentary has gone on too long to be part of a rigorous analysis, but let me say that I need to go back to Santa Fe and thank that bookstore owner. I realize that I tend to either gush or spit venom when I write, and so I've been trying to temper both inclinations (are they different inclinations or simply the same one in different directions?) but not gushing about this book is difficult. The story, the characters, the way he writes, the language...
Enough of all that. This book forced me to revive my old habit of reading with a pencil, too many perfect phrases and challenging thoughts taunting me, daring me to lose them in the mass of text. I went crazy before this trip with buying books so I am laden with a retarded amount of bound paper to thumb through, but they've been given a difficult act to follow.