Death and the American Dream by Daniel Cano – A Review of an LA Novel

Death and the American Dream
Daniel Cano
Bilingual Press, 2009, pg 232

Death and the American Dream is a novel of politics, intrigue and race set in the Los Angles of 1915-1922. It tells the story of Pepe Ríos, an Mexican revolutionary who flees to LA to avoid the war and prosecution for the murder of a rail road official in Texas. He gets a job as a reporter with a Spanish language paper in LA and begins to learn his trade under the crusty editor Ángeal Durón, a 40 something pipe smoking hard bitten journalist who knows the whole city and is cynical enough to know who not to touch. Pepe grows as a reporter, slowly learning that those he works for as well as those who claim to be helping the Mexican workers are only interested in working with rich white people to enrich themselves. Despite the past that should have made him go into hiding, he’s a committed radical who questions the constant police abuse of Mexican laborers. As the novel unfolds his sense of fair play leads Durón to invite him to work with the Mexican Liberal Party (MLP) headed by the Magon brothers. Pepe isn’t sure at first if he wants to help, because his real interest is in finding out if his friend Seferino was murdered when the police arrested him the year before he started working for the paper. As the novel Pepe’s involvement with the MLP grows, Pepe grows closer to the Magon brothers, Durón and other supporters, such as radical unions, and Clarence Darrow. As the revolution the Magon brothers fought to achieve falls apart and they are arrested, it becomes increasingly clear that the Mexican government, California politicians and businessmen, and the wealthy Mexican Americans are only too happy to exploit Mexican immigrants. They use the power of the police to crush any resistance and even when the immigrants can organize, it is only a temporary victory. It is a world where they are subjected to racism, bad working conditions, and arbitrary forced evictions as LA grows. Ultimately, Pepe, who strangely is able to avoid prosecution, is taken in by the police and beaten. He is grilled until he tells what he knows. During the beating, though, he finally given the answer to the mystery of Seferino. As the novel closes he continues on with his muck racking journalism, refusing to write for the larger La Opinion and sticking with the smaller presses, his life of intrigue over, his commitment to the rights of the dispossessed as strong as ever.

As a novel of LA  Death and the American Dream has a certain charm. Cano is fairly effective in describing the WWI era LA, an LA that looks nothing like the one that took shape in the 30s and 40s and which set the template for modern LA. In his LA, Santa Monica is still a little town with unpaved streets and near by farms. It is an enchanting thought to imagine LA as it was once as a kind of Eden. Cano, too, likes to use that as a reference point to a larger one: LA was different 100 years before when it was part of Mexico and the land that is so easily divided up once belonged to others. It is from this interest he writes of the intermingling of international politics, muck racking journalism, and radical politics. He is obviously fascinated by the histories that converge in the city, especially the ones that have been hidden or lost. For many, the great rise of LA in literature comes in the 30s with noir and the golden age of Hollywood. Death and the American Dream is an extension of that literature.

As a novel, though, Death and the American Dream leaves a few things to be desired. Historical fiction is always tricky because it often seems to subordinate characters to events and personalities. Here Cano isn’t egregious but there is quite a bit of historical back ground given and it tends to weigh down the story. Perhaps if the book was a bit longer it wouldn’t have been a problem, but at 232 pages Death and the American Dream is a short book. That brevity effects the characters, especially Pepe, who doesn’t feel really present. It’s as if he were just floating along and things happen. There is not enough volition from him: events happen and then Pepe happens. It’s too bad because he has the sketch for an epic story filled with family life and the forgotten histories of that LA. Instead, the story seems to wander between politics and family life without a strong enough narrative thread. Finally, the writing is solid, what I would like any student of English to be able to do. However, it isn’t a powerful language and the use of journal entries as a story telling device particularly bugged me (in general I don’t think they are a good strategy).

Death and the American Dream is a valiant attempt at the LA novel. For someone obsessed with that literature it might be worth a read.