All writers have those. Especially novelists.
And really, a litany of them exist for me. As with books I love, narrowing it down to one is, well, impossible.
So, I could list these for days!
But not long ago, an event occurred that reminded me of one I so love, so laugh about, that all that needed happen was the memory surface and off again I chased after all the characters.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Milagro Beanfield War, by John Nichols. It was famous in its day (as was Nichols himself—Robert Redford made the film of the book. And Nichols also wrote The Sterile Cuckoo), although I have a tough time finding anyone these days who remembers it. Or Nichols.
He doesn’t write YA Dystopian. Or vampires. Or werewolves. Or, well, he’s not genre. You know—he doesn’t write the schlocky stuff that sells these days.
Don’t get me started.
He writes (from the ‘60s until today) great books that have substance and meaning and that yeah, you actually have to work for a bit. When I was getting the link for this, I read a lot of reviews that labeled the beanfield book slow and boring. Yep, nothing is blowing up on page one . . .
But I’ll never forget decades ago when a good friend loaned me the book and I read it the first time (lord knows how many times I’ve read it since), and I started laughing out loud from the first page.
I loved all the characters from the town—from Joe Mondragon, who one day illegally irrigated his beans, to of course, Cleofes Apodaca, the Patron Saint Crazy of Milagro, whom everybody claimed had El Ojo, the “evil eye,” and gets blamed for everything from the plants in somebody’s garden withering to a farmer saying he was responsible for his flock of six two-headed lambs in one springtime.
I love the entire huge cast of characters in between.
But it was Amarante Cordova, who all his life “lived in the shadow of his own death,” and who just wouldn’t die, who formed the moral (if irreverently hilarious) compass of the book. A richer character in literature I have a hard time finding.
He’s the symbol of what the whole thing meant.
And all novelists wish to encapsulate that with our books.
When I was in Albuquerque and Taos recently, Nichols was having a book signing for his newest, The Annual Big Arsenic Fishing Contest!
So of course we went.
Now, full disclosure—I’ve known Nichols for decades. But I met him after I loved Jose’s Beanfield, so this isn’t shameless promotion for a friend!
He may be the funniest writer alive. One of the most irreverent, for sure. But housed under all of that is a beautiful compassion, a sense of wonder, unabashed joy. And attention to what makes us all human, and what could sure salvage us today.
Under the sheer delight of ridiculousness always resides in his stories the sublime.
Nichols is still, well, Nichols. Funny, irreverent, crazy to the core.
And delighted to see us. Amazed, actually, that I’d come from Texas to his book signing.
He read from the new novel, which had us all laughing out loud. I read it on the plane ride home—beautiful, hilarious, insightful. Vintage Nichols.
I’ve read everything he’s written (fiction and nonfiction), because, well, he could write the yellow pages and make it humorous.
But The Milagro Beanfield War will always be my favorite. I can’t even think about it without laughing.
Much less think about Joe Mondragon’s best friend, Amarante Cordova. Cursing everybody into enlightenment. Cursing the rheumatic Coyote Angel. But always hitting the heart of the matter.
And oddly, supplying courage when everybody (from Joe to me and everyone in between) thinks perhaps this very cliff is one we shouldn’t jump off. Too steep. Too tough. Too impossible.
Spoken from the man who’s been dying since the day he was born (and realized it, unlike the rest of us):
“Nobody would do anything if they knew what they were in for.”
So yep, I wish I’da created old wheezing Amarante. Wish I’da written the entire book. But so glad I have my old buddy John Nichols still writing this stuff!
Thank all the gods someone still is.
Award-winning writer and editor Susan Mary Malone is the author of the novels, "I Just Came Here to Dance" and "By the Book," as well as four co-authored nonfiction books, including "What’s Wrong with My Family?" and many published short stories. Forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers.