Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Surviving the American Dream: Kase Johnstun’s “Cast Away”

Too many immigrant stories in America are about innocents who come here seeking a new life, only to run afoul of hostility and violence. Think of John Lennon, citizen of the world, harassed by the government and then shot down in cold blood on a New York City pavement. It was Lennon who said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” And it’s a line that could serve as the prologue to Cast Away, the latest novel from Kase Johnstun and Torrey House Press. Cast Away is often sweet and funny, but its principal characters, who both immigrated here in their teens (though they came 70 years apart) would finally bond over disappointments like these:

The apartment was small—one bedroom, one bathroom—much smaller than our home in Chelem. It had no garage, no handcrafted stone walkway, and no veranda for my parents to sip sweet tequila and laugh on summer nights like they did before Dad left for los Estados Unidos. A better life,” hed said when we left. More secure,” hed said. A place where the government isnt corrupt,” hed said. But in Mérida, he was a good blacksmith who entertained tourists with his craft, someone everyone looked up to. I didnt get it. I didnt understand how this dingy, dark, and empty one-bedroom apartment … was the better life we talked about.

Chelem is a tiny beach town on the Yucatan Peninsula, surrounded by famous pyramids built atop the crater dug by the meteorite that killed off the dinosaurs. The speaker, Chuy—his nickname is the universal Hispanic moniker for anyone baptized “Jesus”—is the protagonist and principal narrator of Cast Away, which title is taken from his favorite television program— a fictional version of Survivor, one of many TV shows that have taught susceptible nations to see American wealth and liberal principles as solution available to solve their problems.

Victoria Chavez, who will become Chuy’s great-aunt, leaves home in 1923, intent on eloping to Seattle with Jason, a poet and would-be expatriate whose English-language poems she can’t read. When she becomes pregnant, he turns violent, causing her to miscarry, after which she turns to the railroads for escape, but ends up working as a cook, feeding the rough men whose labor is welding the American West together. She mostly avoids their advances and the sexual exploitation that overtakes so many women in one form or another; still, her shame over the reality of her life keeps her from reconciling with her Mayan family.

Decades later, the situation hasn’t improved, and Chuy’s parents are deported as part of the predatory US immigration program, which eliminates temporary workers who show signs of staying. His brother has also gone back home, a choice those whose relocation was involuntary do not have. Just when it seems as though the only way to escape the bonds of the old life is to accept the same strictures, or worse, in the new one, first Victoria and then Chuy happen across another alternative: sponsorship by someone with the capacity and good will to help.

An immigrant child separated from his family is the perfect instrument to observe and tell about barriers that include language, religion, and civil rights, not all of which have to do with race and nationality. Cast Away is less a novel of ideas than a romp through a formerly-isolated region that is experiencing the growing pains of emergence onto the national stage. A novel that begins in a third world fishing village finds its way over a few years to cosmopolitan Utah, soon to host the world during the Olympics and star in a Broadway musical. By taking that story away from the usual suspects and giving voice to formerly overlooked participants, some of his own invention, Johnstun has made it more accessible and compelling.


Cast Away
Kase Johnstun
Torrey House Press
257 pp

Categories: Book Reviews | Literary Arts

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