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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1835

¡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...

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¡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 devoted; he has loved her for forty years. Lulabell decides to help him cast a love spell on her. The spell seems to work at first, but Lulabell struggles to give up her wild life and become Beto's faithful Señora de respeto.

The third story follows Lulabell's son Javier, a born-again Christian, who leads a mariachi band with a limited repertoire of Christian songs. Javier is devoted to saving lost souls (including Lulabell's) but strays when he meets Lucha Orozco on a mission to the Lava County Women's Correctional Facility, where Lucha is serving time for aiding and abetting her drug-dealing boyfriend. Lucha is drawn to the mariachis’ music and quickly realizes that Javier could be useful to her. He agrees to sponsor her release from jail and invites her to sing with the mariachis. Lucha strings Javier along as he attempts to woo her for himself and Jesus; she is especially attracted to him after learning from Lulabell that her own father might have been Javier's as well. Between romantic adventures, Lucha is trying to help her beautiful cousin, Fabiola, who was molested as a young girl and has been mute ever since. The two women arm themselves with pistols and go into business selling the cocaine Lucha's boyfriend left behind when he went to prison.

Peripheral to the three central plot lines is True-Dee, a transvestite hairstylist who is also an old friend of Natalie and Consuelo. True-Dee gives an annual Tupperware party, which this year is disrupted when Javier's mariachis arrive uninvited to harvest the ladies’ souls. True-Dee has not yet decided to undertake the final, surgical change from man to woman and struggles with her decision while longing for true romance. She writes to Querida Claudia, an advice columnist whose frank reply (True-Dee should be in great demand, considering the number of complaints Claudia receives about men who want anal sex and do not want children) accompanies a request that they meet. Claudia (who turns out to be a man named Larry) invites True-Dee to join The Sons and Daughters of San Narciso, an underground association who believe that the volcano shadowing Lava Landing will soon erupt and destroy the town.

Martínez's characters are acutely aware of trademark merchandise, ranging from Aqua Net hairspray to Zippo lighters. Martínez includes the registered trademark symbol as if her characters are mentally noting their use of brand-name products. Even when Don Pancho performs a miracle by dressing Natalie in an outfit he thinks will be romantic and alluring, she notes that he has given her shoes “de la Payless .” The profusion of actual products and merchandise anchors the story in the present-day reality of American consumers, in contrast to its elements of fantasy.

Lava Landing's denizens also love brand-name mementos and kitsch. When Natalie and Consuelo hold their yard sale to raise money for Natalie's trip to Mexico, they make a list of “noteworthy” items sold, largely souvenirs and things of sentimental value, including a Lucite fruit salad bracelet, a chartreuse Fiesta teapot, and an original Bob's Big Boy bank.

Both male and female characters value clothing highly, sometimes for its cultural significance. The mariachi musicians are proud of their traditional outfits, including sombreros that, depending on circumstances, might either sit properly or be askew. Lulabell owns a collection of regional Mexican costumes, which she wears for special occasions without necessarily knowing the origin of any given outfit. Clothing is also appreciated simply for its beauty; Natalie's bias-cut dresses and high-heeled shoes fascinate the pueblo women, and before long all are copying her style. The women of Lava Landing consciously use clothing to express (or hide) their sexuality. Lulabell wears long skirts to signify her fidelity to Beto. Newly released from the correctional facility, Lucha revels in her “Teen Angel ” outfit, including “chinos bien baggy,” which has much impressed her latest lover.

Besides its references to trademark merchandise, the book's physical presentation evokes physical realities, building on Martínez's prose to call Lava Landing forth as a “real” place. In addition to full-page illustrations from Martínez's version of the Lotería, ¡Caramba! offers pastel color-washed “artifacts” that look like photocopies, showing items that are either important or commonplace to Natalie, Consuelo, and their friends. These include the selection list from a local jukebox and tiny, paper-doll versions of Lulabell's regional costumes. Lulabell's advertisement offering her soul appears on a page from a newspaper among several other classified ads, all in Spanish. True-Dee's letter to Querida Claudia appears as originally handwritten, then as edited for Claudia's newspaper column with Claudia's reply. Beto's handwritten list of pros (“enchiladas; tamales; las long legs”) and cons (“gone all day in the street; too much high heel”) regarding his relationship to Lulabell is written on the back of an invoice from his towing business.

¡Caramba! is told primarily in English but is liberally salted with Spanish and Spanglish expressions, with the occasional brief conversation held entirely in Spanish. In some cases Martínez incorporates English translations of Spanish phrases, but just as often leaves non-Spanish-speaking readers to determine the meaning of Spanish words from the context.

As in traditional Magical Realism, Martínez's characters accept the occurrence of supernatural events without surprise. Consuelo never questions that her dreams about her late father are actual visits from his spirit. After Don Pancho's release from Purgatory, Consuelo and Natalie discover him trying to visit them from Heaven but stuck halfway under their house; they grease him with Vaseline and pull him out (he emerges a little scratched). When Natalie awakes from a deep sleep to find her hair grown long and her clothes changed, she knows it is one of Don Pancho's misguided miracles and is merely exasperated with his taste.

¡Caramba! ends with the main characters all on their way out of Lava Landing in search of a wider world and April May McCormick's defeat in the annual Miss Magma of Lava County pageant after a nine-year run. The Miss Magma judges mistakenly attempt to crown Fabiola, who has not entered the contest but is waiting near the pageant platform with Lucha to complete a drug deal. An earthquake (rather than the expected volcanic eruption) signals the end of April May's reign and the beginning of new lives away from Lava Landing for Nat and Sway, Lulabell, Beto, and Javier.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 13 (March 1, 2004): 1135.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 3 (February 1, 2004): 103.

Library Journal 129, no. 1 (January 15, 2004): 159.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 7 (February 16, 2004): 149.

The Women's Review of Books 21, nos. 10/11 (July, 2004): 26.

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