Erik Orrantia is one of a handful of authors in gay fiction with whose writing I connected almost immediately when I read and reviewed his Lambda Literary Award winning debut novel Normal Miguel (Bristlecone Pine Press; Cheyenne Publishing, 2010) for Rainbow Reviews. His is an evocative and fluid voice and from this author I have come to expect good writing, an intuitive understanding of his adopted home of Mexico and always, always extremely well written and developed characters. Mr. Orrantia delivers all of this in his third novel Taxi Rojo a multi-layered “tale of triumph and defeat, hopelessness and perseverance, life and death.”
Six strangers enter a red taxi in Tijuana late one evening, each preoccupied with their own thoughts and lives as they share a ride home to the borough of Playas. There’s Julia an exhausted single mother who also takes care of her disabled sister returning from the other side of the border where she works as a house cleaner for an affluent American family. Pancha, named Fransisco by his mother at birth, a drag queen has finished performing for the evening and is on her way to her boyfriend’s home. Rigo and Toni are returning from their clandestine hook-up and eager to get back to their respective lives, and an unnamed older gentleman who enters the taxi with his much younger companion. When the taxi plunges over a cliff, two are left dead, one has gone missing, two are injured and two walk away relatively unharmed. The close call with death becomes a life altering experience for several that survive, and the accident binds these strangers to each other as they search for the identity of one of the passengers that perished.
Taxi Rojo is written in the third person and the story is narrated through the inner dialogue of several of its characters. Excellent characterization through an ensemble cast is a distinguishing quality of Mr. Orrantia’s writing and in this novel the reader is treated to extremely well written multi-character perspectives. The reader journeys with each of these characters as some re-examine their lives and make difficult but positive changes. Surviving the accident for Julia, Pancha and Rigo is the catalyst for self-reflection and growth. Julia begins to assert her needs insisting that her sister and daughter pull their weight within the household. She no longer allows herself to feel responsible for everyone and guilty for everything and even gives herself permission for some romance in her life. For Pancha who has struggled with her sex and gender identity it means demanding that she be accepted as she is, including by her lover Eduardo, and not settling for less. Rigo is reluctantly forced to come clean to his partner Cristian and begins to take responsibility for his actions, which unfortunately may have a devastating affect on both his and Cristian’s lives. Even for Cristian, who was not in the taxi as it plummeted into the canyon, there is self-reflection and the realisation that he must also take responsibility for his actions and decisions in his relationship with Rigo, as for better or worse they will be forever tied to one another. The saddest character in this novel is Toni who is unable to see that his hatred and anger at himself and the world will be his demise.
I found the journey of each of these characters to be quite compelling and each character is extremely well written and nuanced. Characterisation in this story also showcases Mr. Orrantia’s propensity for writing strong and multi-faceted female characters. Through these characters Mr. Orrantia explores binary sex and gender stereotypes and societal-imposed attributes and expectations of female and male, as well as homosexuality and homophobia. In this context, Julia personifies the self-effacing female and martyr who sacrifices for others and is left resentful because she denies herself. Toni is also self-denying and completely caught up in society’s expectations of the macho male. He is deeply closeted and because of his self-hared and repression he often finds outlet through anger and violence. Through the refreshingly courageous character of Pancha/Fransisco, Mr. Orrantia explores the fluidity of both sex and gender identity, and through Rigo and Cristian the author takes on issues relating to monogamy and some of the detrimental impacts on a relationship of vicarious infidelity.
It would not be an Orrantia novel if the facets and complexities of community life in Mexico were not also prominently featured in this story through the plight of its characters. While the author’s preceding novels focused mainly on rural life in Mexico, in Taxi Rojo Mr. Orrantia provides the reader with the flavours of urban life of this renowned border city and gateway to the United States of two million. As with his other novels, a prominent theme in this story is socio-economic disparity in Mexico and in particular to this story the urban poverty that afflicts several of the characters, as well as the issues of migrant workers given Tijuana’s geo-political distinctiveness in relation to other major cities in Mexico. This is squarely brought home through Julia’s struggles to make ends meet and keep her head above water while she endures the disdain and racism of her American employer, and the lengths she must go to maintain her working visa in the United States. It is also brought home through Pancha’s squalid living conditions. However, what resonated strongest for me in this particular story is Rigo and Cristian’s situation, whereby the difference between relative affluence and poverty can also mean the difference between life and death.
There are happy endings for Julia, Pancha, Rigo and Cristian in Taxi Rojo and I felt that this tied in well with the central themes of the novel – the triumph of self-honesty and love, and hope and perseverance over self-denial, selfishness, hatred and anger. In this context, I interpreted the happy endings for these characters as the author’s attempt to provide a level of momentary respite and hope for them as they have had, and will likely continue to have difficult roads ahead given their individual circumstances. Even with Toni’s predicament, which ends tragically by comparison, there is a sense of comfort and respite for this character as he is unable to reach a level of self-awareness and responsibility for his outlook and actions and therefore decisions for his life are literally taken out of his hands. My only ambivalence in respect of this story is in regards to the quickness with which each of their stories are wrapped up. But this was not a major issue for me in relation to the novel as a whole and it did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the writing and the story.
In all, I immensely enjoyed Taxi Rojo. It is a multi-layered story in terms of both themes and underlying meaning. But the primary message that I take away from this novel, and one that is reinforced throughout the story is that it is the journey in life no matter how difficult that is often just as important for self-awareness and growth, if not more so, than the actual destination.