The strongest trait of Cole's novel about a Cuban refugee in Chicago is the sense of both empathy and reality that the author achieves. The multiple points of view have strong unique voices, while solid dialogue gives a distinct personality to each character. The descriptions ably place the reader in the setting, and the story's tension keeps the reader turning pages. Readers will engage with the characters in this novel and be invested in their fates.
Date Submitted: June 06, 2016
Book Review: Citizen Cárdenas
Sunday, May 15, 2016 at 11:30PM
Citizen Cárdenas: A Novel. Steve Cole. North Loop Books, May 24, 2016, Trade Paperback, 312 pages.
Reviewed by Charles Kuner.
In a book literally “torn from the headlines,” Steve Cole has written a very meaningful and moving story about a Cuban refugee, Jesus Cárdenas, living, if one can call it that, on the mean streets of Chicago as he struggles with illness, alcohol, and homelessness. Yet, he maintains strength to survive using his “street smarts.”
Friends call him Gato. For decades, he lived in a run-down neighborhood until it was gentrified. When that happened, Gato and other poor people were pushed out to make room for the Yuppie generation who could afford the expensive housing and upscale stores and restaurants that were established. Urban renewal was used as the excuse for these removals.
Gato was judged to be disabled and was receiving a disability check, which he stretched by doing other odd jobs in the neighborhood. When the Social Security Administration mistakenly declared him to be dead, George and Alexia Demas, who benefited from Gato’s odd jobs in the past, help him get his check reinstated. Gato stays in their home until he can get a room in a transient hotel. However, the Demas family becomes more involved in Gato’s life to the extent he calls them Mami and Dadi, which leads to the development of a familial relationship among them.
When they try to help him obtain his immigration papers, questions are raised as to how and when Gato/Jesus arrived in the United States. At this point, the story unfolds through several voices, including that of Gato, delivered through a series of transcribed recordings that provides clues to his rather murky backstory. In fact, the book alternates between the points of view of the various characters rather than using the traditional chapter-book format, which plays an important part in moving the story.
Cole not only uses a series of transcribed recordings but also memos, letters, admission essays, and psychiatric reports in place of chapters. It is a creative use of a literary method that makes the book a page-turner and hard to put down. In addition, the story was written in chronological order from 2002-2007, which helps the reader see how things changed and evolved over a period of time.
There are sections that provide invaluable insights into Chicago politics and the inhumanity and difficulties of navigating various bureaucracies that Gato and George had to traverse, such as the housing courts, the legal system, and medical institutions such as Cook County Hospital.
Another strong point of the novel is the author’s use of language, which enriched the story and made it realistic. The author included Spanish, English, and Greek, as well as poetic language written by Memo or Mamerto, a friend of Gato and tutored by Alexia Demas.
One minor criticism of the book is the lack of background and history of Wicker Park and Humboldt Park such as was included about Chicago politics or the backstory experiences of George and Alexia when they were in Cuba.
Make no mistake about it, the characters in this novel are real; they are not cardboard or cartoonish representations. They are characters that readers will care for and, in some instances, even identify with. Cole, via his characters, pulls the reader into the story.
For this reviewer, my favorite character is Mamerto Rodriguez, or Memo, who found his voice and feelings in poetry. A saving grace for Memo was his joining a religious organization where he also became an Associate Minister of the Redeeming Hope Outreach Ministries. Fortunately, this group left gay bashing and race at the door. Memo was accepted as a fellow human being regardless of his sexual orientation or race and this acceptance, along with Alexia’s influence, made him stronger in resisting the temptations that eventually overcame Gato and led to his demise.
Gato also had talent and intelligence. If circumstances had been different, the skills he used to do odd jobs, play chess, and hustle in the streets could have been converted to becoming a successful, legitimate entrepreneur. But it was not to be.
Citizen Cárdenas encourages readers to expand their knowledge and empathy for people they hear very little about except negatively, and this book will give them insights that will expand their understanding of these marginalized people.