Duels before Drama

The Farthest Home is in an Empire of Fire, by John Phillip Santos (Viking, 2010).

In John Phillip Santos’s latest book, a coincidence prone version of the San Antonio-based author feels a terrific familial pull to seek out the roots of his mother’s ancestral line. And so, soberly, he engages in an archive hunting journey that will take him from New York to Israel, Spain, and further down into forgotten parts of Mexico, and into small Texas libraries.

We find this John Phillip Santos at a spiritual crossroads. Here is a cultured man who epitomizes the American success story. Santos is well educated and well married. He’s worked as the Arts Editor for the San Antonio Express News, and he eventually finds himself producing provocative documentaries for CBS, making “programs around the world about the faith based-uprising of the poor, revolutions in the Americas, resurging Islam in the Sudan.” His documentaries are shown on Sunday morning “when only insomniacs or junkies were awake.” But he gets nominated for a daytime Emmy. So the guy’s obviously made it, yet he is nevertheless frustrated by a yearning for his fist love, poetry; and he feels increasingly desperate for a deeper understanding of where he came from.

Santos, a National Book Award finalist, supplies this meditative essay-like story of identity anxiety with several supernatural characters and cosmic events: the image of Don Quixote seems to be stalking him; a curandero claims Santos is dragging his body around and blows rum on him to initiate healing; visions of spirits hover around the soon to be dead, and a time traveling relative from the future, a place called La Zona Perfecta, where: “All is recorded, all is traceable,” is leaving trippy notes everywhere.

Through these investigations, Santos encounters strange and powerful revelations about his people: “We are all of us from everywhere and so have an inalienable right to be everywhere. Since we have the right to be anywhere, no borders will stand. All borders are abominations in the eyes of our ancestor, every frontera a diabolical illusion.”

This smart and satisfying work manages to be dream-like and earnest, while faithfully depicting the identity issues of Texas Latinos and providing readers with sudden gems of metaphorical wisdom. Contemplating his Spanish ancestry, Santos notes: “We all had palaces, we just forgot where they were.”

With its unapologetic search for truth, and all the happenstance stumbling that leads to New Age insights and to new romance, The Farthest Home is in an Empire of Fire reads like a kind of mid-life crisis science fiction novel that recalls Jack Kerouac’s novel Satori in Paris, infused with the fantasy of Philip Jose Farmer. This Tejano elegy is really the inception of a totally new genre.

Roberto Ontiveros