Peace Corps Writers
Review
Saying Secrets: American Stories
For more about
La Comida, Jeff Westerbrook click and to order.
 
  by Jeff Westbrook (Peru 1973–74)
Electron Press Inc.
1998

Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

 
WITH THE Y2K CENSUS TALLIES now available, and with Americans left to consider the new ethnic identity of the UnitedPrinter friendly version States, Jeff Westbrook’s novel La Comida opens on a note that seems both promising and timely. A bomb explosion, which rips apart a grade school classroom in Costa Mesa, California, is attributed to the controversial Proposition 1, an immigration initiative, which seeks to prevent the children of undocumented immigrants from enrolling in California schools. This brave opening segues into an introduction to Greg Martin, a frustrated thirty-eight year old vice president of construction management for a nationally renowned fictional food franchise.

Central characters lacking in appeal
Throughout La Comida, we are meant to support Martin’s struggle to escape from a soulless corporate culture and gain financial independence to follow his dream of painting. But unfortunately, Westbrook portrays only an egotistical individual whose unhappiness motivates him to play fraternity-boy pranks on his colleagues, exploit the availability of ready immigrant labor, and chase a physically attractive woman for the important reason that — well, that she’s physically attractive.
     While not all of these elements scream of Evil Incarnate, what the author might like us to read as humor in the character does not come across that way; Greg Martin is simply crude. The novel makes constant overtures toward the hostility between immigrants and the culturally insensitive elements of the United States; but in the end, the subplot of the mysterious bomber does not deliver any final, definitive statement in this novel of surfaces.
     On the day the book opens, Greg is up to his old shenanigans at the office. This time — since he’s already sabotaged the air conditioning, why not try something original? — he hires an unemployed immigrant to act as his butler and tease the curiosity of his colleagues. The well-named Guillermo Villa DePaz arrives at work with Martin and a delicious homemade lunch of alto plana rellenas. The South American recipe had been passed on by his father, and it catches the eye of an ambitious marketing executive. Marilyn Long has been seeking a new product for the Beanie’s food franchise, and she thinks the rellenas could be it. A pointless and contrived romance develops between Greg and Marilyn for the ostensible purpose of protecting Guillermo and his interests from a greedy Beanie’s executive who would steal credit for the recipe. But the couple makes a weak and unconvincing duo.
     Marilyn builds a marketing campaign to sell rellenas to the American public, and it is obviously the success of her career-making campaign that motivates her, rather than her relationships with Greg and Guillermo. In fiction, such superficial characters do little to earn readers’ interest or sympathy. And Westbrook would have us believe that Greg Martin is a hell of a guy since he shells out rent money and other expenditures in support of Guillermo. But Greg lacks the inner thought that could prove his benevolence to us. On the other hand, his crude exterior and desire for the financial resources to quit his job to paint full-time makes it entirely plausible that his interest in helping out Guillermo is really an interest in helping himself out. Just play the nice guy, and cash in on your protégé’s windfall.

A well-developed and appealing character
Surprisingly, improbably, gracefully, and thankfully, there is Guillermo Villa DePaz, a soft-spoken, confident, and well-developed character. The rellenas may be a symbolic pot of gold for his “friends,” but for Guillermo, the recipe represents the memory of his father who was a restaurant-owner until his untimely death in an accident four years ago. Unable to support the restaurant, Guillermo and his family are forced to move out, and the government converts their home into a hotel. Guillermo’s dream is to find enough money to return home and open a new restaurant. But he’s not stupid and understands the prejudice he suffers as a consequence of his Mexican heritage in southern California.
     When the Border Patrol prevents Guillermo from leaving Mexico late in the novel, he quietly returns to bussing tables at a Tijuana restaurant, thus subtly opening to readers the social dynamic in place for young men such as Guillermo — discrimination perpetually stands in the way of their dreams and is not worth fighting against. But Guillermo knows what he is about, and when Greg rescues him a few pages later, readers continue to hope that he will sell his rellenas so that he may return home and fulfill the reality of his dream.

A failure to draw a distinctive setting
Despite the constant movement between southern California and Tijuana, the novel fails to draw readers convincingly into a distinctive setting. The landscapes provided in La Comida are slapped on, carelessly and hastily confessed, experienced as from a distance. Here is one description of Tijuana: “The streets pulsed with traffic and the sidewalks surged with pedestrians.” This could be any city. “The city resonated with culture clash, Third World survivalist versus first world tourist.” This isn’t an image — it’s an idea. “Tijuana was a major tourist destination, drawing millions of visitors a year, and the locals never missed an opportunity to sell something.” And here we have the writer’s faux pas of telling, not showing. Each of the sentences might be forgiven had it been part of a larger, more apt structure, but they ultimately combine to create a paragraph that is as crude and impenetrable as Greg Martin’s personality.

Opportunities missed
It’s too bad the Proposition 1 controversy is not more deftly handled. Guillermo is tangentially involved in the scandal, but Westbrook fails to offer any effective or compelling statement about the sensitive arena of southern California where white Americans and Mexican immigrants seek to live harmoniously. Few of the novel’s characters are engaging, the dialogue is disjointed, and the elements of intended comedy lapse into farce or crudity. We don’t really care who bombs or gets bombed.
     My advice to Guillermo Villa DePaz is this: find yourself a way out of La Comida and take your alto plana rellenas with you. You deserve a more sympathetic book than this.

Joe Kovacs is coordinating the PeaceCorpsWriters.org sponsored readings by RPCV writers at the Peace Corps' 40th anniversary celebration in Washington, DC. If you are an RPCV interested in reading about your Peace Corps experience, contact Joe at Joe_Kovacs@hotmail.com.
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