(Picador USA / St. Martin 's Press,
his grandmother dies, young Sirenito has no one to raise him but
the Puerto Rican back streets. He's adopted by Valentina Frenes,
a drag whore from San Juan, who teaches him to suck and to snort
before she ODs on smack. He's taken in then by Martha Divine, a
pre-operative transsexual, who knows she can raise the cash necessary
to chop off her
- if only she turns Sirenito into "Sirenita." Divine sells
young boy to the ritzy resorts as a transvestite entertainer.
readers think at this point that author Mayra Santos-Febres has
carved a funky little fusion of soap opera and grit, they'd be right
- at least for the first 50 pages or so. In those opening chapters
Santos-Febres captures the squalor of San Juan. She narrates prostitution
and rape with details disturbingly blunt. She's not afraid to be
graphic. Such details give us the eerie experience of being Sirenita,
rummaging through trash bins to find scraps of food, bleeding into
our pants after a hard night of work.
bad Santos-Febres bungles away our empathy after Chapter 14, where
the whole novel in fact coughs, hiccups and dies. The grit and gore
are through at that point; Sirena Selena unexpectedly
shifts its attention to the glam and glitz of the burlesque world
and its transvestite cabarets, where Sirenita is set to perform.
The author force feeds us detail after detail of these drag cabarets.
She tells of their lounge acts and décor, passes pages with
teary-eyed speeches from queens in full tragedy mode, monologues
so over the top they make RuPaul look like Jerry Falwell.
Our compassion and interest ebb.
that's a real tragedy. Because before the silliness subsumes her
character's pain, Santos-Febres was on her way to making a strong
political statement about poor Latin children - how all too many
are pushed to the street, with its drugs, prostitution and crime.
Sirena cries out for this problem before diverting its
attention, in effect, silencing itself.
the horror of street life with a flamboyant gay romp renders Santos-Febres'
second novel not the literary "Pixote" that it just might have been
- but something all together tamer and feebler, wholly less memorable.