(Revised and Enlarged Kindle Version)
By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
An Egret Book
Reviewed By Prof. Michael Hogan*
Those readers who have experienced the richness of Chicano culture and life in Alejandro Grattan’s The Dark Side of the Dream already know the power of this author in painting complex and believable characters. In that novel, set against the backdrop of World War II, we saw the compelling struggle of a people finding their own identity in a world shattered by the forces of alienation and dispersion. Masterfully narrated and brilliantly conceived, the book marked the ascent of a new and significant voice in Mexican-American literature.
Breaking Even is set in the 1950’s when the eighteen-year-old protagonist, Val, abandons the security of his West Texas town, a loving mother, a kind stepfather, and a girlfriend, to go in search of his natural father whom Val thought had died years earlier. Val has a couple of things going for him. He’s a halfback on his high school football team, and his girlfriend is the daughter of the richest man in town. Nevertheless, as the son of a Mexican mother and an absent Anglo father, he rates rather low on the social scale in his small community.
Then, on his birthday, he comes into an inheritance left by his father that gives him the opportunity to both marry his sweetheart and go to college. Soon thereafter, however, he learns that his father did not die, but rather deserted him and his Mexican mother. Val decides to use his legacy to go on a quest to find his father, despite active discouragement from his mother. Thus begins an odyssey, which like that of Huck Finn down the Mississippi River, is one of self-discovery, rollicking action, and graphic scenes of violence which kept this reader engrossed. For what Val discovers as he finds his father—a compulsive gambler who is travelling with a female consort—is a man who at times resembles the foolishly romantic Tom Sawyer, and at other times the nefarious Duke.
Always a dreamer and often a rogue, Val’s father, Frank Cooper, is charming, articulate, courageous and feckless. His efforts to put together a stake to get into the poker game of a lifetime continuously puts his own life at risk as well as that of his companions. Occasionally brilliant, warm-hearted and outgoing, Frank Cooper always has his eye on the main chance. For Val, these qualities at first seem to explain why Val’s mother still dreams of him and hopes he might someday return to her. To Val, Cooper is the man who generously left her with enough money to buy the roadside diner that has provided her and Val with livelihood for the past eighteen years.
Like Pip in Great Expectations, Val is deceived at first by appearances. He compares Cooper with his bleary-eyed, dyspeptic stepfather, Floyd, who works as a cook in the diner. It is obvious to Val who is the better man, and no surprise that his mother has carried a torch for Cooper all the years. As time goes by, however, Frank Cooper proves incorrigible, risking everything in a series of dangerous scams to buy his way into the poker game. To hold Val in place, Cooper promises that if he hits it big, he’ll walk away from gambling and buy a small ranch where he and Val can come to know each other as father and son.
The highlights of the novel are the gambling scenes, the clever scams Cooper devises to raise money, and the intensely visual fight scenes. It is here that Grattan’s gifts as a former screenwriter and film director come into play. This is a fast-paced, action-packed, highly-readable novel.
Moreover, by carefully developing the character of Val—who discovers in the unfolding of the story the flaws of his father and those of society—Grattan raises his novel from mere storytelling to genuine literary achievement. In the process he has written a coming-of-age novel which by its universality of theme and clarity of vision brings the book comfortably within the ranks of the best of this genre.
*Prof. Michael Hogan is the author of Lincoln and Mexico: A History of Courage, Intrigue and Unlikely Friendships.