¡Caramba! A Tale Told in Turns of the Card tells a loosely plotted, fantastical story involving several characters in a small California town steeped in Mexican American culture. The tale is presented as if life were a big game of Lotería, a Mexican version of bingo. Lotería is played with cards representing common and supernatural objects or characters, with accompanying proverbs meant to enlighten the players. Lava Landing's residents are introduced, brought together, and drawn apart in chapters introduced by Lotería cards. Some of the cards illustrated are authentic, such as La Muerte (Death): “Bald and skinny” and El Diablito (The Little Devil): “Behave yourself well, lest the little red one might carry you away.” Others, such as El Queso Grande (The Big Cheese): “He who calls the shots” and La Peluca Blonde Bouffant (The Blonde Bouffant Wig): “What the brunette uses to fool the world” are invented by author Nina Marie Martínez to represent Lava Landing.
The story opens as Natalie, a woman in her twenties, receives an emergency call from her best friend, Consuelo, who thinks she may have killed a man. Natalie quickly dons an evening dress with spaghetti straps, a pink mohair sweater, and faux pearls before rushing to Consuelo's aid in her 1963 Cadillac El Dorado. This opening passage introduces Natalie and Consuelo as young women characterized by their eccentricity, sense of fun, and love of clothes. For Nat and Sway, everyday experience can be highly dramatic. Consuelo has not actually caused a death but thinks her appearance (she was out walking for exercise wearing cutoff shorts and platform shoes) distracted a driver who then ran over a man crossing the street.
Consuelo and Natalie have a deeply affectionate friendship going back to the second grade; they are de facto roommates, spending most nights at each other's houses and doing their weekly laundry together. Consuelo's great phobia—she is afraid of airplanes, buses, trains, and long car rides—keeps them in Lava Landing.
¡Caramba! has three main story lines. One involves Consuelo's long-dead father, Don Pancho, who appears to her in dreams. Don Pancho is trapped in Purgatory because of a life spent drinking, gambling, and womanizing. He wants Consuelo to go to his home village in Mexico and organize his former neighbors—some of them his former lovers—to pray for his soul. Consuelo cannot travel to Mexico herself, so Natalie agrees to go in her place and free Don Pancho from Purgatory. Nat and Sway hold a yard sale to raise money for the trip, and Natalie has a lovely, magical interlude with Consuelo's family in the pueblo, where she is warmly welcomed and very much admired. Soon the people are moved to pray all together for Don Pancho, and after six hours of continual prayer he moves from Purgatory to Heaven.
However, when Natalie returns to Lava Landing, Consuelo complains because she has not brought photographs of the pueblo, nearly causing an unprecedented rift in their friendship. Natalie points out that she sold cherished possessions to raise money for the trip, which she undertook only out of affection for Consuelo. Nat and Sway wonder if Don Pancho, who now has the power to perform miracles, might agree to cure Consuelo's fear of travel.
In Purgatory, Don Pancho had nothing to do all day but study English. Everything was white. In Heaven, Don Pancho is given a rancho of his own, and everything is very colorful. He is now the patron saint of drunks and prostitutes and is able to perform miracles, but he must decide which prayers to answer from among the many he receives. Don Pancho's first miracle is to refill an empty bottle of tequila for a lonely drunk. His second is to restore a prostitute's dyed and damaged hair to its original color.
¡Caramba!'s second story follows the fragrant and still-attractive Lulabell, an old friend of Consuelo and Natalie, who practices witchcraft and whose son Javier was in their class at school. For years Lulabell followed Jesus but then turned to the Devil and has since indulged a penchant for young men. Discontented with her life, Lulabell advertises in the local paper that she will sell her soul to the highest bidder; unfortunately, she receives messages from both Jesus and the Devil that they will be unable to attend her auction (one delivered as graffiti on a bathroom wall, one written in guacamole on a large quesadilla). The lone bidder is Lulabell's longtime admirer Beto, unattractive but...
(The entire section is 1835 words.)