Missing (una investigacion) by Alberto Fuguet – A Review

Missing (una investigacion) /Missing (My Uncle’s Story) (Spanish Edition)
Alberto Fuguet
Alfaguara, 2010 pg 386

Alberto Fuguet’s Missing (una investigacion) is one of the most interesting books I’ve read for sometime. In it Fuguet continues his explorations of modern life, the interchange of culture between Latin America and the United States, and the mixing of genres that have marked books like Shorts, and applies those elements to his own family, examining what made his Uncle Carlos disappear, to go missing. More than an immigrant narrative, more than a critique of American society, Missing is the story of a man never quite lives the American dream, but lives a life that is all too American.

Carlos Fuguet is one of three sons of a Chilean patriarch who moves the family to the United States in the early 1960s after his fortunes change and he his forced to drive a taxi. The father is a tough and proud man and the thought of driving a taxi is impossible to accept. He moves the family to the US even though that means moving his teenage boys to a country where they don’t speak much English. Carlos, who had always been the good student, the one expected to succeed, soon finds himself adrift. After high school he works as a busy boy in a hotel near LA’s airport and living in a dive in Hollywood since he can’t stand his parents. It is a lonely experience and in one of the more moving episodes he breaks down crying on the Santa Monica pier. A young American sailor comforts him and Carlos says at that moment he finally lost his fear, the fear that had come form being a stranger and alone. Yet that loneliness and living on the margin in dives will follow him throughout his life. Even in the early chapters it is obvious that Carlos finds the need to escape, to be away from his family, especially his father, at all costs.

To understand Carlos, one has to know more about his father. He is a cold man who holds his family at a distance. In a telling moment early on, when Alerto is relating his experiences with the man his grandfather says, “No me tratas de tu. No Soy tu padre…” (Don’t call me by you (familiar form), I’m not your father…). For a Spanish speaker it points to a grandfather who is cold, distant. There will be no grandfatherly indulgences. That coldness is only magnified when describing the relationship between the father and the sons. Carlos can never forgive him, nor his mother who even if she didn’t overtly side with him, always stayed with him and never defended Carlos. Later, when the Carlos’s father is dying and Carlos calls, his father says, “you are a disappointment, we never want to talk to you.” Even on his death bed the father refuses to forgive, and to make he worse he uses the we as if the rest of the family agreed with him. But it is not surprising as he is the father who said when Carlos wanted to buy a car,

tu no, no necesitas un auto,
todos necesitan un auto en los angeles, le dije,
tu no, no necesitas ir a ninuna parte,
aqui esta tu familia
quiero otras cosas que mi familia, le dije.
ah, esos amigos gringos tyuos, me dijo,
te van a arruinar

you don’t need a car,
everyone needs a car in los angeles, i told him,
you don’t need a car to go anywhere,
here is you family
i want other things than my family, i said.
ah, your gringo friends, he said,
they are going to ruin you

The argument is a typical father son argument, and shows a father that despite the successes he would have in the US, he never could see him self as an American. But the family problems run deeper than arguments between first and second generation. In an even stranger episode Alberto notes that Carlos is the second Carlos, the first one was a baby that didn’t live past 1 year. When Carlos was born he was named just like the first. One has the sense that Carlos could never quite live up to what the you Carlos might have.

From such beginnings, Carlos lives a life that is one series of disappointments. When he is 21 he marries a 17 year old and unsurprisingly the marriage lasts less than a year. Latter he marries a rich woman he meets in New Port Beach and while the relationship works, he begins to envy her money. In a fit of frustration he embezzles from a religious community so that he can take her to Vegas. He’s caught and goes to jail for the first of two stints in prison. It is from then on that he seems to live at the margins of American life, if not on the run from the police, then trying to survive the best he can. It is not an easy life and although there are moments of happiness and companionship, he lives alone moving from place to place. For awhile it seems to he has found a place in hotel management, but even that dissipates. At times he is the epitome of Americanness, pulling himself up from his bootstraps, becoming a hotel manager even though he had done two terms in jail for theft. But something always goes wrong and he is left on the margins of society. He is just unable to win.

Towards the end of the book, Alberto asks himself, for all the years he’s worked why doesn’t he have anything to show for it? After having a successful run with a hotel chain turing around troubled hotels he ends up in a run down hotel in Vegas living in a room that is filled with old fast food containers. The irony is he has been living one of the dark sides of the American dream, frittering away his money on silly things, always short on money. In one of the more telling episodes, during the 1980’s Carlos buys an expensive VCR for his father. It is an expensive piece of equipment that makes his father angry. Carlos had only good intentions in giving the VCR, but it shows complete emersion in consumer culture. Missing is not only the troubled story of a rootless immigrant, it is destructive longing for the American dream that is always one purchase away.

Missing, true to its investigative nature, is not a complete story, but one with lacuna and unanswered questions. Alberto uses different genres to approach the unanswerable from as many directions as possible. The bulk of the book is a long poem in Carlos’s voice which lets you see the story as Carlos sees it (and Alberto writes it down). He also includes personal memory, a third person history of his journey to his grandfather’s house, and the abortive first interviews he made with Carlos in a Denver Denny’s. The multiple points of view allow Alberto to comment of Carlos’s story and reveal a fuller picture of Carlos. Much of the family hatred for Carlos’s father comes from these scenes and it makes Carlos a more sympathetic character, one you can almost understand. What also comes is Alberto’s confusion, disappointment and melancholy as he learns Carlos’s life. For Alberto, Carlos had always been the cool uncle, the one who went his own way and disappeared. But that disappearing act was not as glamourous as it seemed from a distance.

One of Alberto’s skills as a writer is to use the detritus of everyday life in his works without it seeming cloying. He has always used product names in his books, but not heavy handedly like a Steven King. They are just something one comes across and occasionally mark certain societal transitions:

Estaba en Las Vegas, en contacto con el mundo, con una direccion que aparecia en Google Earth.

He was em Las Vegas, in contact with the world, with a an address that appeared in Google Earth.

In Missing his use of  this adds to the already strong element of Americanness. Not only does Carlos’s story resonate as an American story, but Alberto shows himself to be a keen observer of American life, something only someone who has lived in a country can show. It is that mix of observation and detail in telling Carlos’s story that makes the book an American story.

Alberto Fuguet considers this his most American book and he is right. Carlos is the other side of America, the one that is free to try and try again, yet it is a futile effort. It is the more than the story of an immigrant, but a story of the other America that lives at the edges of the American Dream.

You can read an excerpt of the book at the translator’s site.