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Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older

Leonicka Valcius: Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older

Friday, July 6, 2012

Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older

Confession: I had no idea what this book was about when I requested the ARC from Daniel José Older and Crossed Genres Publications. When I tried to figure it out, I came across the words “ghost noir” and was terrified. I put down the book and resolved only to read it during daylight. My fear was unwarranted, of course. Older’s book isn’t about ghosts; it’s about spirits. The fact that some of them are dead is minor detail.

Salsa Nocturna, the debut short story collection by Daniel José Older, treats the supernatural… naturally. The dead roam the streets of New York just beyond the perception of most people. In each story, Older explores what happens when the living and the dead clash.

Older’s writing is at once urban and lyrical; the musicality in his style befits the title. Most of the pieces are written in first person so the prose takes on the vernacular of the narrator. The characters are uniquely aware of the words they use: “Simpatico is the best word for him. It means nice in English but nice is such a pathetic word.” 

Because he is the primary protagonist, Carlos’s voice sometimes overpowers the others and it took me a few lines at the beginning of each piece to realize who was narrating. Otherwise the characters are well developed and realistic. Whether they are dead, alive, or otherwise, these characters struggle to find a place where they fit and end up finding each other. They blossom in their interactions and their banter is easy and playful. Jimmy reminds me of my own 16-year-old brother (who better not be doing anything that Jimmy does!)  and I'm Gordo and my cubano grandfather would get along swimmingly. As the stories progress, the characters bond through mutual acceptance and understanding.  They are kindred spirits in every sense.

My one complaint concerns the structure. The short stories were too interconnected to be read in isolation but too disparate to be read as a single narrative. As a result, when you read them all back to back, the short stories come across like episodic pseudo-chapters. As someone used to reading novels, I kept wanting more. Older introduces the reader to a colorful cast of characters, superimposes a supernatural realm onto New York City, and slowly increases the tension and conflict. Then, just before everything snaps, he stops. The book is over.

“…death isn’t the great equalizer it’s made out to be. Layers of hierarchy remain, interlaced by the tangled webs of power and privilege.”

But I suppose even this can be considered a plus. I was left desperate to know what happens next. If Salsa Nocturna is Act 1, it has done one hell of a job getting me pumped for Act 2.
Clearly I need buddies to discuss this with while Older writes the sequel. (If I say it over and over maybe he’ll do it.) So hurry up and pre-order Salsa Nocturna, and if you’re in the New York area go the launch party. Then come back and tell me what you think.

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