The 10 Commandments of Flamenco
The Flamenco AcademySarah Bird
(Knopf · hardcover · $25)
Sarah Bird excels in hilarious portraits of well-meaning people, bonded in dysfunctional tribes and enslaved by compelling pursuits. Bird's latest novel, set in the University of New Mexico's flamenco program, tones down the humor in favor of a greater resonance and maturity. The wit is still there, but it's ever more mordant.
The Flamenco Academy sets a theme of exclusion from the opening paragraph. "Flamenco has Ten Commandments. The first one is: Dame la verdad, Give me the truth. The second is: Do it en compás, in time. The third is: Don't tell outsiders the rest of the commandments."
We first meet Bird's protagonist slipping into UNM's Rodey Theater to watch a rare film of "the greatest flamenco dancer ever," Carmen Amaya. Amaya's "tough gypsy face filled the screen ... . It was brutal, devouring, the face of a little bull on a compact body that never grew any larger or curvier than a young boy's." Bird combines the ancient gypsy pain of flamenco puro with a red Mustang Skankmobile, New Mexico's Hispano heritage, the exhilaration of performance, roadie blow jobs and really awful bunions.
Seventeen-year-old Cindi Rae Hrncir, called Rae, is a tall, pale Czech maiden, shy and very good at math. Soon after Rae's father is transferred to Albuquerque from Texas, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Rae's mother is "high-strung," a euphemism for rat's-ass crazy. At the oncologist's office Rae meets Didi Steinberg, also possessed of a basically useless mother and a dying father.
The dorkiest girl and the coolest girl form an alliance against their desolation. Didi trumps high school gossip by labeling her convertible the Skankmobile. Rae happily tags along as Didi's entourage and does Didi's homework as well as most of their after-school tasks at Pup y Taco.
Then Rae has the good, or bad, luck to meet a second person of lethal charisma. Flamenco guitarist Tomás Montenegro is marooned at the same Central Avenue motel suite where Rae waits for Didi to finish blowing various band roadies in her quest for fame.
Rae and Tomás escape out the window when cops raid the motel and spend a magical night wandering along Central Avenue and into an enchanted park. At dawn Tomás hitches a ride north and Rae begins nurturing a crushing obsession with the gorgeous guitarist. She enrolls in UNM's flamenco program, hoping to become the sort of flamboyant, passionate insider who will earn Tomás' love.
One of the book's joys is roaming Central Avenue with Rae and Didi. On her magical night, Rae takes Tomás by the Aztec Motel. Wandering through its transcendental kitsch, he says, "This place is so flamenco. If you understand it, you understand flamenco."
Rae's story frames the ongoing story told by Doña Carlota, an elderly teacher in the flamenco program and Tomás' great-aunt. Doña Carlota weaves a tale of her abused, impoverished youth among the gypsies living in Granada's caves in the ’30s.
Rae, pale as a moonbeam, wishes she had some gypsy blood in her veins. The search for identity is a running theme throughout the novel. Gringas want to be Latinas, Latinas want to be gypsies, Rae wants to be Didi, and Didi wants to be famous.
The book's greatest gift is its tour through the world of flamenco. The details sound right, and the acknowledgments list many of the people who make UNM the New World's center of flamenco.