The Silver Cloud Cafe is a novel that goes beyond and beneath. Beyond and beneath the glossy surface of San Francisco. Beyond and beneath the clean-scrubbed image of American life. It goes to the Mission District, where two neon angels stand watch over the ramshackle cantina known as Raphael's Silver Cloud Cafe and where the lost and lonely, desperate and dispossessed, come for a meager portion of solace and salvation in the form of companionship, drink, and sex. It goes to the dark waters under the Fourth Street Bridge, where the corpse of a failed priest surfaces, and to the jailhouse, where a nattily dressed midget takes credit and demands punishment for the crime. This amazing novel is at once a gripping murder mystery that probes two macabre killings forty years apart and a panoramic meditation on the magical, mystical mix of race and culture in America. Its spellbinding story of intertwining guilt and innocence, crime and punishment, ranges over the century, from the bloody Christero Wars of the Mexican Revolution to the stifling rigidities of class and caste in the Philippines to the bitter harvests of migrants in the California farmlands to the feeding frenzy and human downsizing of the 1990s. Its characters include a Chicano lawyer and a Jewish investigator who have seen too much and believe too little; a Mexican priest torn by twin lusts for sex and vengeance; a black ex-boxer who is down but not out; a bar owner with a sense of divine mission; and a host of other unforgettable men and women who join in a superbly orchestrated symphony of voices and visions.
The Irish comedian Dave Alan told a joke about a priest telling a girl that in order to be married in white the bride needed to be a virgin. The girl replied that her wedding dress would be white, but with wee spots of blue. I feel very much the same about this novel. Quite simply it is a masterpiece which will stay with me forever, but it is a flawed masterpiece, but not so much as to mar the book for me.
It is perhaps easiest to start with the flaws, as, I'm afraid, does the book. The opening chapter focuses on the detective inspecting the body of a murder victim and undertaking an unsatisfactory interrogation of a witness to the killing. I enjoy American crime fiction and like its sparseness and wit. But then I was then hit in the second chapter by a very different style. Vea seemed to be setting another scene - a picture of San Francisco taking from street level, reminding me at times of Helprin's Winter's Tale and as in that novel I found the style too rich for my liking - too many adjectives, too much political soapboxing, the way some of the speech of the characters disappears into philosophical mumbo jumbo (personally I prefer my magic realism in actions rather than speech) and too many lists (you see what I did then, clever eh!) .
But then the real story kicks in - that of the young boy who would grow up to become the lawyer and the itinerant Mexican and Filipino farm workers who were his stand-in family. As the Goodreads description makes clear the cast is a wonderful one, very believable and at the same time somehow magical. At times with these larger-than-life characters I found myself thinking of Carter's Nights at the Circus. The story is a dark one in some ways, these are men overworked, despised, victims of violence without a chance of justice, with no future and yet there is a camaraderie and gentle love between them that is quite wonderful - such as the scene where all the men take a day off to go to the boy's school to be fathers to him.
The magic realism flows naturally in this tale. These people live in an alien world to ours and in which magic is real. It is a world that the lawyer has forgotten, and with it the terrible event of 1959 which sets his friends fleeing across America. But that terrible deed is the reason behind the strange murder of the priest and the lawyer must remember his past and in so doing remember too why he became a defence lawyer in the first place. The magic and the diverse crowd of dispossessed come together in the Silver Cloud Cafe in 1993, a place guarded by two neon angels. The scene is set for a marriage and two deaths.
I loved this book, despite its faults. I loved its characters, the way the narrative (once it got going) built across time, the poetry, and its humanity. And I loved the way the way the author wasn't afraid of dealing with love and faith. Maybe a book can't be this wonderful without flaws.