The Halfway House (New Directions Paperbook)
New Directions, 2009, 121 pg
Guillermo Rosales’ The Halfway House is a tortured passage through mental illness and exile. It is a disturbed vision, a place where dreams do not survive, and the fragility of life away from the home country is unbearable even for those who have little nostalgia for it. Despite its depiction of life in the halfway house as cruel and animalistic, the book, probably thanks to its briefness, has a precision that makes it not only eminently readable, but impactful, leaving one with the deep sense of pain that comes with mental illness and exile.
William Figueras is a writer and Cuban exile living in Miami. His life, even at a young age, was given over to literature, and by 22 he had written a novel that the Cuban censors refused to publish because they said it was pornographic, but really it had the temerity to show the Communist Party in a bad light. Shortly after, he says, he went mad. 20 years latter he flees to the United States where in his brief 6 month residence he is in and out of several mental hospitals. His family can’t handle him and place him in an halfway house run by a man more interested in collecting the checks of the residents than providing care. It’s a horrid place reminiscent of the 19th century where the mentally ill are left to their own devices and no one cares if the toilets overflow or the residents prey on each other. And all of it is overseen by a thief and sexual predator, Arsenio, whose only interest is to get drunk and take advantage of everyone.
The halfway house is the epitome of a social darwinism with its survival of the fittest mentality. Arsenio thinks nothing of abusing stealing money from the residents or having sex with them. It is the kind of lawlessness that allows Figueras who is the most stable to enter the same kind of abusive relationship with the other residents.After a short stay there he thinks nothing of hitting the residents he doesn’t like or occasionally taking their money. Worst of all he has a pact with Arsenio not to say anything about his abuses. Yet he isn’t criminal as such, but a man who lives by the rule of the environment he is in. He is aware of what he is doing is outside of some norms, but the lack of structure and the ease with which he descends into the cruelty is a reflection of the world outside the halfway house that is just as brutal. Several times Figueras calls those who live outside the house winners, which has the implication not only that those in the house are responsible for their fate, but that the inability to fit into the structure of society automatically casts one out. Figueras, who is obviously self aware of his situation and critical of the Maimi exile experience, he has few options. As Figueras tells it, his mental illness isn’t symbolic, but in Rosales hands it takes on a symbolic aspect, showing the untenable state one finds oneself in when he does not belong in the home country, nor the exile community.
Figueras does try to leave the depravity of the halfway house and seek out a new life, one that is humane, and most importantly, is his own to control. To do this he needs Frances, a resident of his age, who moves into the house and provides him the opportunity to bond with someone. It is a strange bonding, though. He alternates between strangling her and making love to her, all the while she says, Oh, my angel, in a kind of refrain that is disconnected from most of what he does. You are not even sure if she really exists as an independent person and is just responding to his actions. He rents a small apartment for them to live in and they try to escape, but she is taken away by her mother. At one level it is just one more act of control by an oppressive state-like institution. Yet Frances appears quite mentally ill and one wonders if Figueras is just deluding himself with the future they will have. When the escape fails, Figueras who is free to leave, returns to the home. He has few options and the home, despite its horrific conditions, provides him with a kind of easy power and stability that he doesn’t have outside.
The Halfway House is a damming view of exile and the American Dream. Rosales not only sees an America where there are winners and losers, but a place where the basest of human actions occur. Yet he has no illusions about the old country, Cuba. Even though Figueras was a one time supporter of the regime, he does not see anything hopeful in it. To be a refuge from both systems as Figueras, the writer is, is to loose at minimum physical comforts, and the extreme one’s self. Perhaps it is no surprise that Figueras is dedicated to literature, a shifting world of meanings that lays outside of the strictures of communism and capitalism. Yet it is also a futile pursuit and leaves him with little but a suitcase full of books.
It is easy to read Guillermo Rosales’ own struggle with mental illness into The Halfway House. But there is more to the book than facile autobiography, and Rosales created a harrowing picture of humanity pushed, not so much to its most desperate, but its most untethered, a state that brings out the cruelty and complicity in humans by sheer lack of direction. It is in this untethered state that Rosales’ The Halway House finds its greatest power to show humanity at its end.
FTC Notice: the publisher kindly provided me with the book and I thank them for that.