In a bar, he sits and rants, for hours on end, to an interlocutor who has the author’s own name, about everything he finds detestable in Salvadoran life, from the country’s beer to its writers, from its food to its politics.
Sam will continue the chemo for as long as it works, then he’s hoping to receive experimental immunotherapy treatment. To be sure, his days are circumscribed, and he spends a lot of time watching TV. But he can also go for walks and to restaurants, and he can take showers, all of which are things he couldn’t do a few months ago. His story is not finished.
Or do you start the story with the day everything changed? Which was in 2014, right around his thirty-eighth birthday, when Sam was given a diagnosis of Stage III-C stomach cancer. For the enviably uninitiated, about nine per cent of people who receive such a diagnosis are alive five years later.
After nine months of hard work and challenging classes, one would think such a long break could do nothing but good for students; however, this is not the best way for young minds to learn.
Though he was mostly still eating many small meals, Sam had kept his stomach empty in order to indulge at this one; we consumed expensive food, admired the view of Lake Michigan, and gossiped. After lunch, Shauna went home to her baby while Sam and I walked around in the cold and gossiped some more. A week later, Sam returned to his parents’ condo in Torrance for Thanksgiving, and almost immediately things started going wrong.
It’s not the book I would recommend to a reader who had never encountered this unusual writer—that would be his great novella “Senselessness”—but it’s an interesting exercise in both imitation and self-exorcism (Castellanos Moya has said that he wrote it, in part, to rid himself of the influence of Bernhard); and if, like me, you are drawn to novelists who are bloody good ranters (Philip Roth being our great American example), you will be likewise drawn to this peculiarly compulsive novel.
Flying out to L.A., I imagined that Sam and I might talk for five minutes, then I’d sit there and read while he slept. Instead, after not hugging hello because he was immuno-compromised, we astonished his family and ourselves with a marathon six-hour conversation. Sam and I talked about novels and other writers, about love and sex and marriage and friendship, about George W. Bush and adult coloring books and how the food Sam craved most was a greasy slice of Domino’s cheese pizza. We got our usually reticent friend Emily to text us a picture of her pregnant belly because it turns out that, when a person with metastatic cancer requests something, people tend to comply.