Carlos Nicolas Flores’s new novel, Sex as a Political Condition, bears the subtitle “a Border novel” and has a distinctly Mexican-American flavor, but its observations are universal. It sees the world through the perspective of Honoré, a former drug trafficker trying to survive selling knickknacks to tourists. Among the knickknacks are some old tin soldiers–a regiment of knight-errants gone to seed–and some smuggled weapons meant for revolution.
In this sprawling, incisive, and acidly funny book, Honoré, as his name suggests, lives his life by a code. This code is undefined, contradictory, and occasionally deranged as all our codes are, but it is also a stumbling grasp at nobility. Our protagonist, together with his friend Juan Sanchez Trusky (nicknamed Trotsky), tries to dispel his past and help a Guatemalan people’s revolt. That decision–to get off his ass and work for the greater good–ironically ignites a series of comic disasters.
Much of the humor of the book comes from the author’s critical appraisal of both South Texas and American life. These often revolve around the brute fact of sex, witnessed via the male gaze, as Honoré struggles time and again under the spell of maracas and, even when meeting with potential feminist allies, cannot help but speculate about their sexual potential. (He faces perhaps his greatest test with a young blond woman who may or may not work for the CIA.) And while some might take issue with the portrayal in this book, the author makes it clear that this is part of a larger critique of male chauvinism, jingoism, literary aspiration, commercialism, and certain forms of feminism itself. Flores honors the author’s duty to hold up a mirror to ourselves and reflect back every beautiful and wretched aspect. This is especially true in the main character’s love/hate relationship with his own culture: “Honoré hated that he preferred talking to gringos simply because he could joke around with them without wanting to kill them afterward.”
There is one key scene late in the book, in which Honoré has been through a difficult journey and the hardest part yet remains, and he allows himself a moment of rest. He feels a woman putting her hand through his hair, and the feeling is so good that it spreads “to where God made him a two-legged creature.” In a moment, however, he discovers that it is a man–a puto, in his language–but his reaction is of astonishment rather than hatred. He can’t fathom how such a sensation could have come from a man, which is a very different kind of revolution for a binary-thinking South Texan.
Recalling both Don Quixote by invocation and theme and also Voltaire’s classic Candide in its rollicking, sometimes misanthropic humor, Sex as a Political Condition explores machismo to its illogical conclusion. In doing so, the book succeeds as a pulp adventure story as well as literature, absent the affluent pretension of a Franzen or Roth. It is revolutionary in spirit and inelegant in ethos, equal parts hilarious, offensive, and insightful; you will read some passages aloud to your friends to make them laugh, and others to piss them off. Any book that can do both is worthwhile as they come.