Selling empanadas, building a community

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Can you recall that time in your life when you first encountered the world on your own, when your eagerness fought with your shyness, and friends and books and music and movies seemed vital sources not just of amusement but of new, remarkable, and attainable lives? If you can't, The Empanada Brotherhood, the 11th novel by acclaimed New Mexico author John Nichols, will give you back those years, with interest. 

"Blondie," the novel's self-effacing narrator, has come to Greenwich Village in 1960, determined to become a writer but uncertain of both his craft and his proper subjects. He falls in with a disparate band of characters, most of them Argentines, whose perplexities, struggles, occasional joys and more frequent disasters he shares. Together they patronize a small empanada stand. 

The stand's operator, Aureo Roldan, serves as a surrogate father to his "customers." In his travels through a world he sums up as "a truly remarkable pigpen," Roldan has adopted a sort of Christian Marxism. When he closes his stand for Thanksgiving Day, he tapes this message to the shutter: "DAY OF THANKS. Come upstairs if you are hungry. There is safety in numbers." But the community he fosters quickly disperses when he has to flee his mob creditors, and "Blondie" is left feeling both bereft and enriched. 

The adventures of a young person coming of age have been described in approximately 1 million other novels. But Nichols makes this old theme live again, transforming what a critic once called his "exuberantly overloaded prose." He pares his chapters down to pages, and his sentences to bone knives. Here, for example, is New York City in the winter: "A woman kept snug by luxurious fur stood uncomfortably with her arms folded while her Pomeranian shivered in a drift." 

Though Nichols has revised his style, his tremendous gifts remain unchanged: His ear for language, his painter's eye, his unsentimental compassion have never been better employed. Nichols has reached the roots of a theme his work has explored since the days of The Milagro Beanfield War: "I am sorry for all the sorrows on this planet...," he writes. "Thank God we can still rejoice." 


The Empanada Brotherhood John Nichols

208 pages, hardcover: $22.95.

Chronicle Books, 2007.