by Carlos T. Mock, MD
Floricanto Press, 248 pages, $24.95
Review by Tracy Baim
Chicagoan Carlos T. Mock is a political voyeur. He writes frequently on blogs and in newspaper columns about a wide range of gay and mainstream topics, and he has a special interest in Latino gay issues. He has written about his Puerto Rican identity in Borrowing Time: A Latino Sexual Odyssey, and published The Mosaic Virus, a novel about an AIDS-like virus and the Catholic Church.
Mock's newest work, Papi Chulo, is similar to The Mosaic Virus in that it takes historical facts and massages them into a work of fiction, this time about the island of Puerto Rico and its fractured identity. Mock's love of his native land is evident throughout Papi Chulo. His own hopes and dreams for his people ebb and flow with the tragic tides of history. He is cynical about political leaders and passionate about the people, some who are clearly modeled after inspiring heroes in his own life.
Mock's background in medicine is also evident in Papi Chulo. One of the primary characters, María Rexach, becomes a pioneer in women's health and the right to choose abortion. Born in 1900, we follow the path of both María's own life and the life of her nation as it comes under control of the United States, and fights for its own life for more than a century.
We meet the real and imagined political leaders of the last century as they squabble and sometimes succeed in bringing rights to the island. We see how identity issues plague generations of people, as some move to the mainland and lose touch with their home, and as islanders dismiss them as not true Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans born on the mainland have an especially hard time with identity issues.
The novel is not a 'gay novel' in the typical sense. However, it does include gay characters, and the sensitivities of the book are informed by an author who is both pro-choice and out.
There is a risk in creating an alternative universe, where some facts remain and others are altered to fit the vision of what the author wants to occur. The real people may be upset, but Mock clearly states at the beginning of the book that this is a work of fiction, even though some facts are real. Incidents of revolutionary violence ( to push for independence from the U.S. ) , political intrigue, funding of the Contras or even the Stonewall Riots of 1969 are used as backdrops for a multi-layered story about the potential of a people and the dreams of a nation.
Mock's own antipathy for self-interested leaders is clear throughout the novel, but he uses the stories of individuals like María, her friend Clara Rodriguez, her children, her friends and others to show the pain through the eyes of people, making the history more accessible and the imagined reality all the more desired. As Mock would attest, if novelists ran the world, it would be a whole lot better place.