The Empanada Brotherhood

By John Nichols

Chronicle. 208 pp. $22.95


Reviewed by Michael McHale


From the start,

The Empanada Brotherhood

pulls off a remarkable feat: The latest novel by the New Mexico-based novelist John Nichols is set entirely in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, but makes no reference whatsoever to Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Simon, Jane Jacobs, Jasper Johns, or any other significant figures then walking the streets of that New York neighborhood. Instead, the subjects of this book are the mainly Argentine, mainly ragged immigrants who frequent a little empanada stand on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal - a grimy establishment surely off the radar of the neighborhood's more illustrious inhabitants.

The stand attracts a bawdy, slightly eccentric crowd. Among them is a young gringo, fresh out of college and living in bohemian penury a few blocks away. This is our narrator, whom we know only as Blondie but readers will recognize as the young Nichols, a shy and nonjudgmental student of the human condition. When not washing dishes at a local restaurant or receiving rejection slips from publishers for his college-based novel, he hangs out at the stand, taking it all in.

Through Blondie, we meet a motley cast of characters: Luigi, whose burnt face does not discourage his quest for love; Popeye, a toothless man with a diaper truck; Chuy, a lothario with only one hand and a picture book of his female conquests; Roldan, the stand's generous proprietor with a big heart and poor business instincts; El Coco, Luigi's bizarre and destitute friend; and Alfonso, a math genius torn between two fiancees - to name just a few.

The talk at the empanada stand tends to concentrate on girls, sex, rivalry, future plans, new beginnings, the occasional foreign film, and well, sex. Blondie stays mainly on the sidelines.

We are never quite sure why our gringo narrator would rather socialize in his broken Spanish at the empanada stand than use his native tongue at one of the neighboring bars or tea houses catering more to his demographic. Perhaps it's because he is more comfortable as an observer than as a participant. Perhaps it's because he is also, in his own way, an outsider, and can take refuge in the immigrant experience of solidarity. Regardless of the reason, Blondie's/Nichols' nearly seamless integration into this community relies upon character traits that would later serve the author well. Nichols went on to become a highly empathetic chronicler of Hispanic/American cultural clashes in the American Southwest in his New Mexico Trilogy of novels - one installment of which,

The Milagro Beanfield War

, was adapted for a 1988 film by Robert Redford.

Through Chuy, Blondie meets Cathy Escudero, a young, driven flamenco dancer. He gets into the habit of visiting her practice sessions in a cold 14th Street studio, where, accompanied by a young Spanish guitarist, she dances with mesmerizing ferocity and hot, artistic passion - or

duende

- the pursuit of which by all the characters in one form or another is one of the subtle underlying themes of this book. Slowly, everyone in the room during those practice sessions falls in love with Cathy. Blondie is far too shy to do anything about it, though two other men do act upon their ardor, one tragically.

Not a whole lot else happens in

The Empanada Brotherhood

- and that's just fine by me. Clearly, this was a singular and fleeting period in Nichols' life, when he felt true fellowship and a genuine sense of belonging. Conveying that feeling effectively doesn't require a complicated plot. What I liked most about this highly readable book is that Blondie was open to these feelings even though he didn't share a culture or a native tongue with his brethren.

As is usually the case with these things, Blondie's fraternal bliss was not to last: For reasons I won't reveal here (I don't want to spoil what little plot there is), the stand's band of brothers unravels and each man goes his separate way. We can infer from Nichols' resume that the college novel for which Blondie collected publishers' rejection notes was eventually accepted, becoming

The Sterile Cuckoo

(which was then turned into the 1969 Alan J. Pakula film starring Liza Minnelli).

John Nichols went on to great heights, but it's probably fair to say that all those feelings accompanying that success never did detract from his piquant memories of how it felt to first saddle up, broke and alone, with an empanada and a Coke at a dreary stand on the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker, listening for hours to the endless, spirited banter.

Michael McHale reviews books for several U.S. and U.K. publications and also makes chandeliers. He is based in New York.