4 out of 4 stars
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Steve Cole’s literary novel, Citizen Cárdenas, presents the story of a homeless Cuban immigrant, Jesus “Gato” Cárdenas surviving early 2000’s Chicago with the help of his chosen “Mami” and “Dadi”, Alexia and George Demas.
In the novel, Gato is described as “down, but never out,” and we meet him during a particularly luckless episode: Social Security wrongly assumes he died and would withhold his benefits cheque and back pay until he proves he is alive and well, which he can’t do without an identity document. With no documentation to rectify the mistake, he turns to George and Alexia for help. Since he lives in the park in their neighbourhood, Gato is familiar to them, and George decides to launch a one-man crusade against the bureaucracy on Gato’s behalf. George’s decision to help leads to tentative charity from the Demas household; they let Gato board with them a while, and he becomes more to them than just another vagrant in their neighbourhood. They start considering him a friend, though George, still curious, and growing suspicious as he tries disentangling all the red tape, wonders if he could solve the mystery of Jesus Cárdenas’s identity.
What hooked me right away is the novel’s substance and immediate depth. Citizen Cárdenas is a layered story; the characters’ motivations are conflicted, especially those of George and Alexia Demas. I sensed that Gato’s plight isn’t the only reason they wanted to help him back to his feet. Guilt seems to influence their compassion to a considerable degree. Why notice Gato now, after they’ve been aware of his difficulties for fifteen years? And what do we as readers do when asked to empathise with someone like Gato? Despite encountering these questions as I read the book, I don’t see Citizen Cárdenas as a didactic story. Despite his self-inflicted ill-health and intermittent homelessness, Gato is a charmer with a raffish dignity all his own.
The story alternates between the first-person perspectives of Gato, George and Alexia, as well as some of Gato’s associates. His friend Mamerto the poet’s viewpoints are particularly eloquent. Each character has a distinctive voice and offers a different facet of the story as it continues through time. Steve Cole is a careful observer of human nature and interaction, and he portrays his characters and their dialogue with a clear writing style. Citizen Cárdenas is professionally edited; I didn’t see any errors while reading the book.
Since I enjoyed this novel and saw nothing to fault, I rate it 4 out of 4 stars and recommend it to readers whose interest lies in literary novels and character-driven stories.
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