This is a book that I never would have picked up had it not been written by the author of Marcelo in the Real World. It’s about a lawyer who ends up on death row after an unreal series of bad events that cascade into an avalanche of catastrophes. But this author, I believe, can take any subject and turn it into a wonderful book. And what makes a wonderful book? I would offer at the least: memorable characters, a gripping story, and illuminated truths. Stork ‘s books have all of these qualities.
The protagonist, Ismael (the Spanish form of Ishmael) becomes a pariah like his biblical namesake. And yet to me he seemed more like Job. Just one horrible thing after another happened to him. But this Ishmael, who once thought he heard God say, “Ismael, you are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased,” is so likeable, and so totally destroyed by circumstances seemingly beyond his control, you just want to cry out for him when he asks “what kind of God can only be appeased through the suffering and death of his son?”
When the story begins, the Prison Commissioner has mandated that all of the death row prisoners “find something to do.” He decides Ismael should use his legal skills to help other prisoners with their appeals. Ismael also elects to write a book about how he ended up where he is. This book within a book, along with copies of some of the appeals letters Ismael writes for other prisoners, form The Way of the Jaguar.
The title derives from a way of coping that is taught to Ismael by one of his fellow west-wingers (as the death row inmates are called). To learn “the way of the jaguar” is to figure out the things you fear and to face down those fears. Most importantly it means staring down La Pelona – death – and being ready to die with dignity and courage. Ismael’s journal is one way he teaches himself the way of the jaguar.
As Ismael reminisces, you learn that he was loved by three women, which you have no trouble believing since you, if a female, quickly become yet another who loves this earnest, passionate, confused human being. You get to know these women: Armanda, Trudy, and Kate, all of whom taught Ismael something about love, yet none of whom separately could fill the longing in him for “deep, deep joy.” He tells Kate:
“It wasn’t filled by work and it wasn’t filled by Trudy. Maybe it’s you, Kate, who can fill it. I don’t know. I thought it was you for the longest time. Maybe it’s unfillable by anything in this world. But God, I hope not. And even if it is unfillable, I think the empty place needs to be filled as best it can. I mean, we need to try to fill it. I have seen it filled in degrees in others. People who like their work and who like – not just love, but like – the person they’re spending their lives with. It was even full for me at some points in my life. I know it sound very self-centered to say this, but maybe it’s our obligation, the only thing that really matters, to try to fill our hearts as much as we can. Maybe that’s the case.”
It seems however, that it isn’t until Ismael learns the way of the jaguar that he can fill the emptiness inside him. But is it too late? He is on death row, after all: will there be enough time?
Evaluation: Although this book is not a tour de force like Marcelo in the Real World, it is an amazingly good book. It is a story of expectations and disappointments in love and marriage, and at the same time it is a story of sin and redemption. In spite of a subject that might be bleak and depressing in other hands, in the able hands of Francisco Stork it is the memories of love and the glimmers of hope that persist, in spite of everything.
Published by Bilingual Review Press, 2000
I’d never heard of any other books he’d written. I’d like to read my copy of Marcelo before I add anytthing more of his to the wishlist, but this one sounds excellent if i do end up loving Marcelo.
I’m with Amanda in that this author is new to me. You reviews definitely have piqued my interest. Great review!
Amanda and Julie,
I was very happy to like this book. I just finished another book by an author I really like, but hated the book. It makes me so sad when that happens!
I think you miss Moby, since you are reading another book with an “Ishmael” (sort of).
I definitely need to read his stuff! Found one at the bookstore going out of business, will probably start there. 🙂
Another Ishmael? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagghh!
This really does sound amazing – and it’s probably a book I wouldn’t have glanced at twice either if not for the familiar name of the author and now the awesome blog review. Which is why I read book blogs 😛
I’m another Stork virgin, but you have certainly whetted my appetite. And I love your three conditions for a good read.
Is this is first try at adult fiction??? Sounds really good and one that I feel I would enjoy.
while this book sounds interesting, maybe I should just go right to “Marcelo in the Real World”. 😉
Perhaps I’ll just start with Marcelo … or should I ramp up to it by reading this one?
Having just read Marcelo largely because of your recommendation, I want to try this one next! Like you, I might not have picked it up if I weren’t already familiar with the author, but I trust him now to make his characters complex and layered. 🙂
I’ve never read the other book by this author you mentioned but this one sounds good to me.