“Deep in her chest she felt a horrible loneliness and hugged herself against the realization that she was alone in the world. That as much as she loved her family and her friends, and as much as that love was returned, she was alone. For the first time in her life she understood the word ‘meloncholy’ and knew that other people in the world must feel the same.”
“No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again: A Symphonic Novel” by Edgardo Vega Yunqué
New York City is a sprawling place and, at its heart, are its people and its music. Bill Bailey (as it will from herein be known since there’s no way I’m typing all that again) is a novel filled with the rich history of the diverse American experience and the characters who build up the fiber of its being, centered around half-Puerto Rican, half-Irish, all-American Vidamia Farrell and her Vietnam War veteran father, Billy. As one would expect in any sprawling epic, this love letter to New York and jazz wears a corona of various stories, all centered around Vidamia finding her father and integrating him into her life. The wide scope of the book also allows it to tackle a variety of issues through a span of a century: race, racial identity, immigration, sex, violence, religion, society, war, and, of course, music.
One of the 700+ page books chosen for the Tea & Books Reading Challenge, this book brought to mind some of my other favorite sprawling, generational, “love letters to…” books, such as Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, James Fray’s Bright Shiny Morning, and Ha Jin’s A Free Life, all three of them books I liked more than Bill Bailey, though Bill Bailey definitely deserves a place among them. Yunqué is exceptionally good at composing the gritty, harsh realities of the world (a pinnacle scene toward the end of the book will haunt me for a good, long while and comes with a warning tag that if it was harsh for me….don’t say I didn’t warn you); he is less apt, I feel, at portraying the better things in life. There’s a certain saccharine sweetness to the scenes where his characters are happy that lean toward the overdone. I was left wondering a few times exactly we had left New York and wandered into the Brady Bunch house. Toward the end, the book also became a little too preachy, I suppose; I had trouble believing the arguments about race to be genuine (although race has always been such a non-issue in my upbringing and being total White Bread to boot probably limits my experience in that arena) and the racist characterizations of Vidamia’s mother particularly bothered me. He does a lot of telling at the end of the book, Vidamia reflecting on certain things and the “moral of the story,” which I felt took away from the beautiful, symphonic prose that had lead us to that point.
I mostly liked the outlying characters peppering Vidamia’s story the best; those stories were the most interesting and Vidamia, as well as a lot of the characters closest to her, seemed well-rounded at first, but then developed into a sort of stereotype. Her mother became a stubborn, ignorant antagonist while her father’s family almost all became brilliant beacons of unrealistic perfections. Vidamia herself transformed into a bright and engaging girl to a complete Mary Sue, totally brilliant, beautiful, and never wrong. Yunqué puts this girl on a pedestal, but I wasn’t quite as convinced that I should be worshiping her.
The book weakens at the end, but the journey to get there is a wonderful one, rich and sprawling and engaging, filled with a lot of interesting characters along the way. It still has a strong, moving conclusion, if a little moralizing, and I appreciate the richness Yunqué has brought to the pages and the brightness of this carefully concocted mixture of Americana and the diverse history of her people. Being Puerto Rican himself, Yunqué has particularly brought that aspect of American culture to the plate, but there is so much more in there, too, that I can’t think of it as a Puerto Rican tale, but an American one and I hope that was his intention the whole time.
Books read: 2/100.