by Jesse Lee Kercheval
Winner, 2008 Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Contest Selected by Josip Novakovich
Brazil is a quintessential American road trip. Paulo, an 18 year old bell boy in a Miami Beach hotel, and Claudia, a wealthy Hungarian refugee, take off on a night drive that turns into a crosscountry journey, a sleep deprived search for the real America and for missing family, a fast-moving car trip into her past and toward their future.
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It was my birthday, my nineteenth birthday, and I was in the bar of one of the Art Deco hotels on the beach when I met her. They were always using this hotel on Miami Vice, although they were careful to take tight shots of the pink front and not show the bums and junkies down the street, not until later in the episode, so it seemed like they were miles away, in another Miami.
The bar was beautiful—exquisite, that’s the word that came to me—black and white and chrome. It was an upscale, laundered money kind of place, and I felt odd there, like I was in a movie, although I didn’t know which one. I was with this guy, Roberto, who I met at Timmons College when I thought I’d made it out of Miami, had my ticket to the real America.
But I’d left Timmons after just one semester and gone back to working as a bellboy at the same hotel, the Royale Palms, where my mom and I used to live, where I’d worked in high school, a big ‘50s not ‘30s kind of place, not too far from the Fontainebleau but not nearly as nice. It was Roberto who went on with pre-law, building his grades, his sights on Harvard Law, while I got moved up from bellboy to parking attendant.
“Kercheval’s novella is not only structured as a journey but is a wild ride through much of America, portraying two unlikely companions in a highly charged and tense relationship. The narrative moves briskly, in economic language, and chronologically, without the customary flashbacks and postmodernist collage tricks—an extremely well written and suspenseful tale, cinematically vivid, provocative, and wonderful.”
“Brazil reminds me of why I started reading in the first place, to be enchanted, to be swept up and carried away from my world and dropped into a world at once more vivid and incandescent. The prose is luminous and compassionate, the characters are riveting and heroic, the themes complex and resonant, and the pace is relentless. This is not a book you can put down before it’s finished with you. You won’t soon forget Paulo and Claudia as they rocket across the country into the heartland, searching for love, family, and a home in the world.”
“The novella is at once the most elegant and demanding form: a writer must balance the looseness of a novel with the concision of a short story, a feat that only the bravest and most talented of us can manage. In Brazil, Jesse Lee Kercheval proves, yet again, that she is exactly the right writer for the job. A wild American picaresque, Brazil snaps along briskly, yet feels full-fleshed, and brims with a sly wit and grace.”
“What sleight-of-hand have we here—a novella that’s as rich as a book three times its length while as seamless as a sonnet? Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Brazil is a glorious road trip into Florida’s heart of darkness, where damned near anything is possible, and points beyond. No one in this book has ever been told not to give rides to strangers. For that, this reader is grateful.”
Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of eleven books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including the poetry collection Cinema Muto, winner of the Crab Orchard Open Selection Award; and the story collection The Alice Stories, which won the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize. Her first story collection The Dogeater won the Associated Writing Programs Award in Short Fiction; and Space, her memoir about growing up near Cape Kennedy during the moon race, won the Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her individual stories and poems appear regularly in magazines in the U.S, the U.K., Ireland, Italy, Germany, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. She is currently the Sally Mead Hands Bascom Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.
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