Brazil by Jesse Lee Kercheval
Though the title of Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Brazil conjures images of exotic romances in faraway lands, America is the focus of this novella. Or more likely, two characters’ wild ride through what they hope America really is. Neither they nor the readers are quite sure why the journey begins, but this quick read, set in 1988, appropriately begins at the bottom of the map, in Miami.
We can sense that Paulo, our narrator, is searching for something, despite his failure to finish even one year of college, in the only city outside Miami that he’s ever been to. He admits that his pay as a bellhop at a middle-of-the-row hotel is enough to keep him grounded in the only city he’s ever known. His mother, once a waitress swept into a life of luxury by a wealthy Brazilian, has since moved on to a Central Florida trailer park; his father, for whom he was named, moved back to Brazil, leaving only a blurry memory of his figure showing through the slats of young Paulo’s crib. Now, on his nineteenth birthday, Paulo seems on the edge of something.
Though he convinces himself that the art-deco hotel scene in Miami Beach is enough for him, a series of flashbacks throughout the story reveal that he’s at least curious about what lies beyond. He still lives at the hotel where he works, just as he did growing up with his mother, in a suite payed for by checks from Brazil. Then, Paulo meets Claudia. She’s a well-dressed, 40-something with a heavy accent, who’s quick to pick out Paulo, whisper in his ear, and ask that he be her driver. Inside the car she offers Paulo a line of coke and says, “I want you to drive.” “Where?” he asks. “All night” (10-11).
Well into the trip (but not too far into the story), Claudia continues dispensing cash for her new companion, decking him in fine Italian suits and handing him drugs, but doesn’t reveal her purpose for the road trip. That is, other than her constant question, “Is this America?” As an immigrant, Claudia has a sense of displacement similar to Paulo’s. Though, ironically, Paulo’s displacement from a real home and true identity has kept him stuck in Miami. He has never found a place where he fits in, feels comfortable. Not even college.
Now, like the Brazilian father who stole the mother away from her life as a waitress, the mysterious well-to-do Claudia enjoys the thrill of chasing America with her willing hostage Paulo. Readers experience a seemingly unending ride straight upwards, as the unlikely duo start popping amphetamines to keep themselves speeding along. Claudia, of course, takes three every few hours, while Paulo starts off with just one, having never tried them before—but heck, he’s never been on a cross-country trip to see the real America with a cougar before. Might as well.
Readers who pick up this novella for this first time might glean from its back cover that this trip is a quest into middle America, a search for the very first apple pie that ever called itself American; and that the unlikely pair of main characters mentioned are a rebellious young boy and a timid beauty eager to stop at every tourist trap along the way; and that the compassionate prose and heroic characters make for a sultry, young romance.
Well, the characters are eager, and there are some strange roadside attractions, but that search for America is unlike what you’ll find inside. I admit, I thought I’d stumbled onto an unusually literary romance novel when I first grabbed it off the shelf, and in some ways I did. But the romantic aspects of this novella have nothing to do with Claudia and Paulo falling in love. Rather they are searching for what’s supposed to define them, whether that’s family, lost lovers, or simply, a home.
The faraway, exotic Brazil from Paulo’s heritage has lost its luster; the hotel where he’s lived his whole life seems a dead end. What he craves now is a place he imagines would be the white-picket-fence-type. “It was dark where I was, and as I looked up at the lighted windows, homesickness hit me hard. I’d never known what that word meant before, except in some sentimental Hallmark card sort of way. This was a real pain in my chest….I wanted to be somewhere else so strongly I would have run there, crawled there, hot-wired a car and driven there as fast as I could….I wanted to be home.” (71)
And perhaps, this impromptu road trip across America—with a woman equally as lost—will get him closer to one.