274 pages, $29.95, ISBN: 087565729X
September 24, 2019
This novel is a delightful read, a lovely tapestry woven of colorful threads from artsy Paris, tropical Cuba, and authentic, old-school San Antonio. Cosimo Infante Cano is a seventy-year-old bohemian at the zenith of his life and career as an artist in Paris. With pre-revolutionary Havana roots, the artist is well-received and revered for his artwork in his adopted Paris hometown.
The capricious hand of fate upturns his world when what is supposed to be a sabbatical from his life in Paris, turns into a nightmarish reality. Sara, his longtime paramour, has business affairs to settle in Texas. She convinces Cosimo to join her in San Antonio for a year or so, taking care of all his travel arrangements. He hands over his substantial savings to her which is intended to be returned when they reunite.
Upon his solitary arrival in America, his suitcase containing all his clothing and important belongings is stolen at a train station. In the blink of an eye, he is no longer part of the aesthetic hierarchy of Paris; he is an odd little man, nearly destitute, walking the streets of San Antonio. The final blow is that when he arrives in San Antonio, Sara has vanished without a trace.
Severo Perez paints a vivid, lush picture of San Antonio, right down to the details of buildings and bridges and shops in what Cosimo had presumed to be but a backwater Texas town. Perez explores the odd reversal of fate when the elderly artist’s life of renown and the attendant financial ease earned for him by his work disappears.
The bureaucratic government machinery that had operated below his insular artistic and financial plateau in Paris becomes a quixotic, unreliable immigration gatekeeper, hindering him from establishing a place in America. Worse, the Kennedy-era Bay of Pigs fiasco arouses suspicions with immigration officials over Cosimo’s known Cuban roots. Perez sketches a kaleidoscope of lively, well-drawn characters, while navigating a meticulously accurate mélange of 1960s America embroiled in racism, nationalism, civil rights struggles, and a perilous Cold War. Even France, his adopted home, is tied up with the Algerian rebellion.
Texas readers will savor the authenticity of vibrantly drawn sketches of venerable San Antone, or “San Tonio” as some West Texas folks call the river city. The author’s sharp eye for aesthetic detail recalls early Hemingway narratives of Cuba and Key West; his finely drawn characters and connections are a blend of William Faulkner’s engaging visceral interrelationships and Virginia Woolf’s rich-hued settings; and his prose shares the lyrical aesthetics of Derek Walcott’s poetry.
There is an innate goodness in Cosimo, a heartwarming sense of honorable practice, of what’s right and, as importantly, what is absolutely wrong. The penniless artist re-grounded by fate among the working-class, mostly youthful characters, is in many ways a ghostly reflection of his own formative years.
There is redemption, at the end of the novel, and constructive goodness in Cosimo’s adventures and struggles along the way. The story is enchanting, the writing beautiful, the ending both worthy and heartwarming, the characters vivid and believable. This is a gem to be savored, a historically grounded adventure to be lived by readers fortunate enough to discover and appreciate Odd Birds.
SEVERO PEREZ, an award-winning filmmaker, playwright, and writer, grew up in working-class Westside San Antonio and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. For over forty-five years he produced programming for PBS and for network and cable television. His feature film adaptation of Tomas Rivera’s novel . . . and the earth did not swallow him (1994) won eleven international awards, including five for Best Picture. His first novel, Willa Brown & the Challengers (2012), is historical fiction based on the real-life African American aviation pioneer Willa Beatrice Brown. Odd Birds is his second novel.