Discussed in This Review
Don’t let the lurid title fool you; it’s well-chosen, but not for the reasons you might think at first. David Winner’s debut novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, has only a slight and quite oblique concern with the consumption of human flesh, and although the story eventually takes us to more exotic locales, much of the significant action takes place in and around New York City.
Mercifully, Cannibal is not a horror book but a charming, laugh-out-loud comedy in which increasingly absurd plot twists mount up in four tightly-structured parts (very much like the acts of a play) following the trajectories of three lonely New Yorkers: Margaret Heller, middle-aged and newly divorced; her unlikely lover, Dante Herrera, a young upper-class Mexican-American from Brooklyn; and her ex-husband, Alfred Heller, a public defender and aficionado of Latin American culture.
Winner has a gift for making the most absurd situations seem utterly plausible and even inevitable.
The novel opens with Margaret unhappily attending a singles mixer at a nightclub where everyone is much younger than she is. “Too young,” she thinks, “to have any interest in her that was not mercenary.” But within moments of this world-weary observation, she finds herself approached by a dark and handsome young man who promptly buys her a drink.
An awkward and slightly alarming conversation ensues but is leavened by the young man’s extraordinary physical beauty. Margaret finds herself gazing into his “large almost Asian eyes” where “deep black pupils…swim in luminescent eyeballs, which verge on the leaking of inexplicable tears.” She soon picks up on some unsettling quirks in her young companion (his impatient mannerisms suggest “a frustration bordering on fury”) and winds up feeling more baffled than seduced. Observing that he seems “to have plenty of money,” she wonders what he can possibly want from her, “a woman in her fifth decade.”
Although Margaret is not the only point-of-view character in the book (we spend some time inside each of the three main characters), she is nonetheless the central one, the narrator with whom our main sympathies lie, and her self-possessed ironic observations serve to ground us in a comedy that will take us in many unexpected directions. Margaret is highly educated, cultured, and (though strangely passive) seems mostly capable of looking after herself. We are not surprised — not too much, anyway — when we learn that she is a successful businesswoman. But underneath all that competence and coolness burns a lonely and passionate nature: Margaret is capable of astonishing us, and perhaps herself as well. When the young man at the bar — whose name is Dante — abruptly asks Margaret to leave with him, she throws caution to the wind, and brings him back to her apartment.
Ignoring one’s passions can lead to a sterile, unfulfilling life, but impulsiveness exacts a price of its own. Margaret discovers almost immediately that Dante harbors a pathology that could fill a psychiatry handbook. If the mild-mannered and introspective Margaret occupies the cerebral viewpoint of the book, it is the childish and tormented Dante who drives the engine of the plot. Dante lurches from mood to mood with little provocation, oscillating wildly between sulky passivity and uncontrolled rage. Like the proverbial bull in a china shop, he quickly makes a shambles of Margaret’s quiet, orderly life, and Winner wrings out some of the most exquisite comedy in the book from his heroine’s desperate attempts to regain control of her life and her dignity.
Dante is a cipher, a Caliban-like creature of pure id who seems driven almost entirely by primal urges. The underlying source of his torment, however, remains a mystery. Margaret believes she will discover the answer when Dante finally invites her (with great reluctance) to dine with his family in their Brooklyn home.
But here the mystery only deepens, for on arrival she finds herself surrounded by a host of wealthy, urbane Mexicans who welcome her with a gracious warmth that stands in puzzling contrast to Dante’s decidedly antisocial tendencies. With her usual perceptiveness, however, Margaret detects an underlying desperation among the Herreras — especially during dinner as Dante works himself up towards another tantrum. (Mealtimes, Margaret has discovered, seem to be a particular locus for Dante’s hair-trigger temper.) Although Margaret feels some anxiety about meeting Dante’s mother — who is approximately Margaret’s age, and enviably beautiful — it is Mrs. Herrera who seems eager to please, apparently grateful that her difficult son has found someone else to look after him.
In spite of the strong suggestion of ulterior motives, Margaret finds herself genuinely charmed by the Herreras. Her thoughts suddenly turn to her ex-husband, Alfred. With his deep love of foreign culture — especially Latin American culture — Alfred would have been delighted to dine with this exotic, sophisticated Mexican family. Indeed, it seems to Margaret that Alfred has long been searching for exactly such a family: the Herreras come awfully close to Alfred’s romanticized ideal of a warm, colorful Latin household — with wonderful food and cosmopolitan conversation — in contrast to the bland sterility of his own mid-western background.
The introduction of Alfred sheds some light on a riddle that may have been puzzling the reader thus far: why on earth would a woman like Margaret tolerate a sulky, enraged man-child like Dante for more than half a minute? But it appears that Margaret has some prior history with passive-aggressive men.
Alfred first appears as the author of a series of long, pretentious, and increasingly disturbing email dispatches from South America. His divorce has apparently freed him, in middle age, to indulge his life-long obsession with Latin American culture and pursue youthful fantasies of the ex-pat-as-writer. Well, not quite an ex-pat. Alfred’s lonely journey through Latin America takes place in the short window of a vacation from his job as a public defender, a fact that renders his pith-helmeted, mosquito-plagued correspondence all the more ludicrous.
Alfred’s pompous, affected emails describing his “dark Latin wanderings” are one of the great pleasures of Cannibal, with passages that satirically echo Hemingway, Theroux, Chatwin, and other practitioners of the genre, and which are well-written enough — as in the best satire — to make the reader begin to uncomfortably reconsider the value of the source, i.e., the entire travel-writing canon. I am watching the rain pounding the beach as bloodied mosquitoes lie splayed against the fading yellow wallpaper, runs a typical passage. Pecking away at my battered laptop, I only sip at my bottle of cachaca at controlled intervals to avoid sinking into melancholy.
Alfred’s melancholy, alas, is no mere travel-writing trope. Slogging through his florid descriptions of grimy hotels, impoverished streets, and desolate beaches, we quickly surmise that Alfred’s correspondence is a thinly veiled attempt to win Margaret back (he frequently invokes past trips taken together during their long marriage) as well as evoke her pity. The letters churn with longing for Margaret but any romantic potential is undermined by Alfred’s resentful digs (in the midst of the most seductive passages, he liberally scatters allusions to Margaret’s age, weight, and general dullness as a human being). Furthermore — in convulsions of overblown prose that are in turns both hilarious and cringe-worthy — Alfred sees fit to relate highly detailed narratives of his drunken, admittedly pathetic attempts at local whoring and seduction, culminating in one of the most astonishing and uproarious scenes in the book.
But soon Alfred is on a dreary flight back to New York, set inexorably on a collision course with his ex-wife and her psycho lover, pushing the already zany plot into even higher gear. In the hands of a less agile writer, the story would thereafter be in great danger of degenerating into slapstick, but Winner has a gift for making the most absurd situations seem utterly plausible and even inevitable. This is because Winner takes his characters seriously. He may have saddled them with a host of outlandish appetites and defects, but he never gives in to that great temptation of comic writers: to play one’s characters for mere laughs. Instead, Winner offers us fully fleshed-out, rounded human beings, who — like all of us — are not always in full control of their actions, but compelled to do what they do by mysterious forces within. The realistic treatment of his characters complements the often ridiculous circumstances of the comedy: when his characters behave absurdly, we understand why, and the unlikely situations into which they push themselves reveal surprising new aspects of who they really are, and new opportunities for growth and change.
All of this makes for more than just a hilarious page-turner. In a well-written book full of delightful surprises, perhaps the most delightful of all is that Cannibal is a genuine (if bizarre) love story — a strangely moving tale of three lonely, alienated people who hunger for companionship, love, and a sense of belonging, and who do their best to find these worthwhile things wherever they can. Winner’s debut novel is that truly rare thing — a comedy with heart.