David Loya, the hero of Guy Garcia’s first novel, straddles two sharply different worlds: the Los Angeles barrio of his origins and the New York yuppie milieu to which his Harvard education has gained him entrance. As the novel opens, Loya’s life is in shambles. Disenchanted with both his high-powered law firm and his high-class girlfriend, the overworked Loya is ordered on a vacation when, propitiously, his old college roommate asks him to return to Los Angeles to do a small favor. The friend’s father, a California state senator engaged in a tight campaign for reelection, is being blackmailed by a Chicano activist who has obtained sensitive documents from the senator’s maid, Josephina Juarez, an illegal alien who has since disappeared. Loya agrees to look for her, launching a quest which at each turn becomes more mysterious, and which ultimately takes on great personal significance. The missing Josephina becomes a symbol for what is missing in Loya’s own life; seeking her takes him back to the barrio, back to his family, back to a religion of sorts, and finally back to Mexico to find his roots.
Garcia has a cinematographer’s skill in editing together scenes, flashbacks, and dream sequences from a number of diverse settings--barrio meetings, Hollywood parties, religious legend--yet his careful attention to surface detail sometimes overshadows the real heart of the story, making the book seem a little like its title, skin deep. Loya’s obsession with Josephina is puzzling; it feels more forced than genuine, as does the unfolding mystery of her disappearance. Like many first-time novelists, Garcia throws in a lot of metaphors that dazzle but do not ultimately add much depth to the characters or story. Nevertheless, SKIN DEEP is a promising debut, providing a glimpse into a world not often seen in contemporary fiction. Especially strong are the scenes with Loya’s extended family in the Los Angeles barrio.