‘A Candle for San Simón’ by Kelly Daniels: Accidental Comedians, Road Warriors, & Rough Magic

Paul Wilner

Inside (almost) every “serious’’ novel, there’s some pulp fiction struggling to get out. Kelly Daniels navigates the path between the two, mostly successfully, in A Candle for San Simón (Owl Canyon Press; 276 pages). Mirroring some of the themes of Daniels’ 2013 memoir, Cloudbreak, California, an account of shaking off the legacy of his drug-dealing, surfer-bum father, the new novel is a picaresque narrative of gun-running and gang violence in Guatemala written in a deadpan noir style that sometimes recalls Charles Willeford (and Malcolm Lowry). But the repressed always returns, and a father-son conflict is once again central to this tale.

The protagonist, Max Caruthers, leaves Southern California to volunteer at a Guatemalan mission and find the father who’s abandoned him. Both projects are complicated. His dad, Norman Vincent Caruthers (with apologies to The Power of Positive Thinking), is scraping by as an itinerant bus driver and barfly who’s fallen deeply in debt to a corrupt police chief, Chucho Cruz. And Max’s commitment to the mission gets knotted  by his relationship with Karma Munos, a local woman who’s been giving him Spanish lessons—a situation made even more complicated when a woman they meet at a bus station leaves her baby with the couple without warning.

The plot thickens when all three  cross paths with Vicki Valle, the girlfriend of an executed gang leader from Los Angeles. Deported for jaywalking, she wends her way back to Central  America, where she hooks up with her ex’s former boss, Angel. Vicki meets Norman when he’s transporting a group of underage Mayan girls back to the States for prostitution, and finds herself entwined with Max and Karma, too. A touch of evil, indeed.

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Daniels plays some of this for comic effect. Vicki demonstrates panache as she executes a john she’s picked up in Tijuana in the bathtub of their hotel, introduces modern business practices to Angel’s criminal empire, and keep him firmly under tabs as she susses out his kinky, masochistic tendencies. It makes for entertaining, cinematic story-telling, but too often she and Karma play out overly typical hyper-sexualized roles as Latina temptresses. And Cruz character, while endearing, is out of central casting, too. In fairness, it should also be added that Caruthers, père and fils, are also painted in broad strokes—clueless gringos, strangers in a strange land—and the author is in on the joke.

The heart of the novel lies in Max and Norman’s fitful attempts at reconciliation, hampered by the father’s frequent alcoholic lapses, and efforts to drive his son away, as he sees it, for his own good.

But the two men reunite for a fateful gunrunning trip, aimed at paying off Norman’s rising debts. Things go wrong—they could not go more wrong—but the bond is re-established, even if at a terrible price.

They are all players in a cosmic farce. As Vicki tells Norman when she first meets him:

“You’re an American, down here while everyone down here wants to be up in America.! Que raro, cabron! What are you, a joker?’’

“Not on purpose,’’ he replies.
She grinned. “An accidental comedian. So, you try to be serious, but everyone laughs. I met people like that before.’’

So have we all. It’s a testament to Daniels’ skill that we care about his novel’s lost souls, trying to find their way out of private hells and public humiliations. If the road is rutted, the pain is real—and the laughter redeeming.

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