Review of The Reef by Juan Villoro

Ray Barker

Understated and wrecked, Antonio “Tony” Gongora, the 53-year old narrator of Mexican writer Juan Villor’s recent novel, The Reef, is in a suspended state of recovery: recovering from the breakup of his semi-successful rock band, Los Extraditables (as bassist, he was inspired by legendary fusion-player Jaco Pastorius); recovering from a drug-damaged life and feeling wasted, his memories receding by the minute. His previous life is kept alive by the constant recollections of best friend, bandmate and current colleague, Mario Muller, aka Der Mesiter. Tony’s life is an endless run of losses: missing a finger from a fireworks accident as a child, and his loss of his mobility: as a teenager, he was struck by a car while reaching for a pass thrown by Mario. His limp is a constant reminder of that foolish tragedy. Tony’s also missing his father, a man who ran away or was killed—or both—when Tony was only seven.

Biding his time at The Pyramid, a once swanky hotel in Kukulcan, on the Caribbean coast, life drifts by for Tony in a haze of vague recollections. The Pyramid—upping its ante as it competes with neighboring resorts—offers tourists “extreme” tours, which sometimes involves physical violence, or just the threat of it, to wake privileged tourists from their sedate realities. These charades are so authentic , it’s hard for observers (Tony included) to tell what’s real. Other staff at The Pyramid include Leopoldo Tamez, head of security; “El Gringo” Peterson, a prominent shareholder who conducts business out of London; and Sandra, a transplant from Iowa who has been in Mexico for 20 years, teaching yoga and kung-fu at the hotel, and for whom Tony openly lusts.

The Reef, first published in the original Spanish in 2012, and published again in English in May of this year, is Villoro’s first novel translated into English. (The translation by Yvette Siegert is exceptional.) His acclaimed short story collection, The Guilty, was his introduction to English readers previously, published in 2015. While Villoro has served as visiting lecturer at both Yale and Princeton Universities, his home is in Mexico City. Mexico, as a backdrop, figures prominently in his work. In the novel, Mexico is the place where, at least Tony believes, “Nothing happened, but everything mattered.”

However, it matters to Tony that his gay colleague and friend, scuba-diver Ginger Oldenville, is found dead with a spear in his back, floating quite visibly in the fish tank in the hotel. This discovery by hotel security initiates the murder-mystery plot, which is the only recognizable and familiar genre present. In comparison to Tony’s personal loss, the staff who earn their bread-and-butter at The Pyramid are concerned that Ginger’s murder will further impact the resort’s reputation as an ideal getaway, drying up an already tepid business.

The staff at The Pyramid serve as Tony’s artificial, temporary and dysfunctional family, all contributing to and observing the shenanigans of the tourists. Villoro consistently describes these settings in beautiful and unique language:

"The palm trees lining the main road by the Pyramid were swaying in the breeze. I inhaled the  humid, cottony air of the Caribbean. Mario and I had thought about turning the rhythms of these trees into ambient music. I gazed at them sadly. It was like looking at something that’s already part of the past, but hasn’t yet receded into memory." 

The bygone days of the rock band’s past is often recalled with great affection, and serves as an effective device to share aspects of Tony’s and Mario’s lives together. As the opening band for the recently reunited, and overwhelmingly influential band, The Velvet Underground in Mexico City, Tony is awestruck by singer-songwriter Lou Reed whom he observes backstage:

“Lou Reed was a walking skull in dark sunglasses, something pulled from an altar for the Day of the Dead. He dealt the cards in the poker game of lost souls, and it looked like he was willing to give me one. He looked at me like I was the next piece of trash, and I was stupid enough to take it as a compliment.”

In a relaxed frame of mind, Villoro’s—and Tony’s—world is an easy one to inhabit. As the passage above demonstrates, Villoro is skilled at making this world feel lived-in, and real. The murder-mystery plot is casually-rendered and slow-moving, nearly secondary to the internal emotional world Tony cautiosly navigates. undetectable..

The themes are few and constant: dissipation, diminishment, the physical world reflective of Tony’s interior one—the emptiness is pervasive. As he says, “Practically all of the hotels in Kukulcan were vacant. They rose up along the shore like vertical mausoleums, circled by seagulls and ravaged by plants and rats.” The sad reality of the place represents Tony’s default emotional state of exhaustion, truly wasted, a feeling that hangs over the novel as a somber cloud: “The coast region had entered a period of hardship. The tourist enclave hadn’t heeded the warnings about building on sand: the wind beat mercilessly against the facades and then rush out to sea, taking the beach along with it.” Tony knows only a little of his father, who left, and then possibly died, when he was just nine:

“Of my father I remembered a few gestures. The way he’d press on my chest as I lay in bed, as if expelling the oxygen would help me fall asleep faster. The phone calls when he’d ask to speak to me, just to relay a few words...I didn’t miss him because I’d hardly known him. What I missed was the possibility of having a father…”

Luciana, a once-upon-a-time love left him during his peak of drug dependency on angel dust. Mario serves as the gatekeeper of the repository of memories, the platitudes pile on throughout the story as memories tend to do: “Mario brought me provisions in the form of memories, with methodical patience.” Tony says to Mario, “‘You’re like an IV solution that drips memories.’” And finally he offers this profound and sad insight regarding his friend: “The day he died, my past would be over.”

Reading The Reef requires a certain kind of “methodical patience.” The slow, forward-moving plot takes significant tangential turns, though with intention. The narrator consistently and dreamily dips into the past—the few parts he can recall—and permits the present to be subsumed by Tony’s “fragments of memory.”

Within and beside the murder-mystery thread is an authentic, tragic, and deeply felt story, a simple one also, about two old friends tethered together somehow throughout life. They painfully navigate the confused phases of love—with family members, women, and one another. Without being too cognizant and aware, they absent-mindedly observe the slow decay of their particular place, and people. These sentiments are contrasted with Villoro’s off-hand abrasive satire. Mexico’s modern culture is scrutinized with a close eye, and rendered only as an insider could. Villoro knows his subject well, and writes confidently and comfortably about it.

With a similar world-weary perspective and detached, blissed out naivety, easy comparisons are made to popular cult film The Big Lebowski—Tony a stand in for The Dude, as both are shaggy around the edges, shuffling through life. But by the novel’s end, Tony ends up in a protected place—teamed with a rescued child and her caretaker, taking his place within a family he didn’t know he was missing.

Mario tells Tony that “Even what’s unreal is true,” which unequivocally confirms the dominance of the past impressing upon the tenor of the present as well as the value of dreams and memory. Delight in Villoro’s shrugged indifference in distinguishing between the two.