“Breaking Even” starts out thus:
“What Val saw as his long period of involuntary servitude was about to come to an end. In the prison movie parlance he liked to affect, he had done his ‘hard time.’ He had finally reached his eighteenth birthday, and Texas law entitled him to make his own decisions now.”
The time is 1955. Val has just graduated from high school – although barely. He’s finally free to escape the tiny Texas town of Big Bend, which he detests, and go off to California. Val’s mother, Guadalupe, is Mexican and his father, who has long since flown the coop, is Anglo, which at least makes Val part Mexican. This all takes place at a time when Mexicans were not as visible in that part of the world as they are today. Needless to say, Val feels he is at the bottom of the local pecking order.
He also feels hemmed in by his loving mother and wants to escape her influence, too. Guadalupe owns a roadside cafe frequented by farmers and truckers and other itinerant folk. She lives there with her current man, Floyd, a kind of nonentity who has little influence on Val’s life or on his thinking. Floyd works as short-order cook in Guadalupe’s diner.
The story opens at a time when Val discovers he has caused his girlfriend, Bonnie, to be pregnant. This only gives him another reason for wanting to leave town.
Yet another reason is that around this time Val makes the discovery that his father, whom he understood for years was dead, is still alive and his desire to find him becomes a kind of quest. Val has decidedly mixed feelings about the father he has never known, with perhaps plain simple curiosity being the main motivation. He doesn’t know whether he should admire him or hate him. Later in the story, when his friend Clarence asks him en route to meet his father, Val’s response is “I’m wondering what I’m gonna say when I finally meet up with him? Do I hug him before I hit him or afterwards?”
This is one of those “coming of age” stories where you don’t want to give much of the plot away to anyone who might read it. Needless to say Val does leave, and he does find his father, Cooper, a professional high-stakes gambler who makes his living at the gaming tables. His companion is Blue Morgan, an aging, sometime bar singer. The two of them travel around the Southwest visiting all the various gambling hangouts and manage to somehow eke out a living in the process.
When Val makes contact with Cooper and Blue, Cooper at first doesn’t know he’s dealing with his son. Eventually he does find out, although Blue makes the initial discovery, and the action becomes a case of father and son finding out about each other. Cooper obviously knows how to handle himself at the gambling tables, even though he has somehow managed to avoid amassing any wealth. He is also an oddly likeable sort of guy and it’s easy to see why Lupe, back there in Big Bend, still harbors fond feelings towards him.
Val and Cooper grow fond of each other and Val has no problem being accepted into Cooper and Blue’s company. The story moves to its climax when Cooper sets out to make a killing in a big high-stakes poker game. He makes the promise to Val that if he makes a bundle in this game he’ll buy a small farm where he and Val can live and work together and get to know each other. It’s this game that provides the climax of the story. I must add, too, that Grattan-Dominguez is good at describing the action of the game in an exciting and suspenseful manner.
But that’s enough about the plot. It’s sufficient to say that Grattan-Dominguez does bring all the pieces together in a satisfying and plausible way. Even the pregnant girl friend who Val jilted earlier in the action finds happiness. His characters are so real and so well-rounded that the reader really cares about them. Not one of them is either wholly good or evil. If anything, they are simply human beings with virtues and weaknesses and, if anything, that is the strength of “Breaking Even”.
If I have any criticism of the storytelling it stems from the occasional outbursts of Spanish dialogue from Val’s mother that are never translated. Instead, we’re left to figure out from the responses of other characters what she said. Thus we get sentences like; “?Le dijiste gracias a Floyd?” and “Y ya sabes que no tuvo que hacer nada de esas cosas para nosotros.” Or: “Si, pero todavia estoy muy enojada contigo que fuiste tan lejos sin darme una llamada!” I usually had no problem, but someone totally new to Spanish could find it an obstacle.
In my humble O: Good one. I enjoyed the other Grattan-Dominguez novel, “The Dark Side of the Dream” (reviewed here July 2001). And I find “Breaking Even” just as enjoyable.
By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
Arte Publico Press, 1997
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback