Montague Kobbe Reviews Pedro Juan Soto’s “Spiks”

Spik780853453314_p0_v1_s260x420In his “Memo from La-La Land,” Montague Kobbe reviews Pedro Juan Soto’s 1956 Spiks. It is a real pleasure to rediscover, through a fresh lens, a literary work that one has read long ago. After reading Kobbe’s review I rushed to my bookshelves, searched and searched, and finally found my old copy of Spiks, dusted it off, and it’s now waiting for me on my nightstand! Here are just a few excerpts of this lively review; I recommend reading the full post:

[. . .] That is the setting of Spiks, a succinct collection of seven short stories paired with six other capsules or “miniatures” that brutally and strikingly reflect the reality encountered by these “new Americans.” Written in 1956 by precisely one such member of the northward march that was meant to bring prosperity and wellbeing—that was supposed, let’s face it, to bring a minimal measure of civilization to a people deemed to be backward—Spiks is inevitably bleak and even grim in its depiction of the lives of Puerto Ricans in New York, of New Yoricans, in the 50s. But perhaps the book’s greatest insight comes from Soto’s frank portrayal of his own people—a complex bunch with wildly differing expectations who mostly lead miserable lives but who in many ways are not so much victims of circumstance but rather the perpetrators of their own demise. In some sense, Soto is keenly aware of the major challenges and precarious conditions that punctuate the existence of Puerto Ricans in New York but at the same time he is not overtly sympathetic or unnecessarily sentimental about it: he remains true to his stories, damningly so, and this affords them with a distinct edge, with an element of double condemnation that never allows the reader to fall into a well-defined comfort zone. [. . .]

PJSotoSpiks is Soto’s first work of consequence, and the fact that it was only published upon his return to Puerto [Rico] bears significance. While the bulk of the stories unfold in New York, the collection opens with the start of a journey—not only a metaphoric one—in “Captive,” a story that deals with the forced departure of Fernanda, a 17-year-old nymphet whose burgeoning sexuality has resulted in an adulterous relationship with her sister’s husband, all of whom live under the same roof. [. . .]

Cleverly structured into pairs of short and super short pieces, Spiks develops a rhythmical counterpoint through strong if brief characterizations that build a credible, complex and somewhat dismaying social environment of their own. The world of Spiks, beautifully erected on single-page “miniatures” that predate by well over half a century the rise in popularity of flash fiction, is the same world that Arthur Laurents would later portray in West Side Story, a tale that unfolds across town, on Upper West Side rather than East Harlem, but that nevertheless is laden with the same degree of violence and prejudice, of struggle between integration and assimilation that permeates throughout Soto’s stories.

[. . .] Thus, the journey in Spiks is ultimately one of introspection, one that might start at any airport but that ultimately must lead to peace with yourself, one that must necessarily be traveled alone. It was a journey that Soto would need to explore time and time again during his life, experiencing the pain of rejection in New York as well as in Puerto Rico—an outsider in both places. [. . .]

For full review, go to

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