Fear of failure isn’t a subject that most artists want to casually sling around in public. But a young painter, writer or musician speaking frankly and privately might give you an earful about the repeated rejections, the disapproval of well-intentioned relatives and the brutal financial pressures.
That’s a reality that the Cuban-American narrator of Vanessa Garcia’s intense first novel, White Light, knows all too well. On the way to see her gallerist in New York, Veronica Gonzalez confides, “I cross my fingers so hard they go white at the knuckles. My breath begins to shorten. …What if I fail? What if I go in there and talk to Lee and whatever it is she wants, I fail at? What if it’s how it always is — close, but no cigar. What about Plan B? There is no Plan B.”
Miami-born Garcia paints an emotionally charged portrait of this troubled Miami artist. Even the best of news — that she will have a solo show of her work during Art Basel week — is followed by disaster: Veronica’s father, discovered unconscious, is rushed to Mercy Hospital. Garcia vividly captures the nightmarish situation: “Dad’s got tubes everywhere now. He has a bruise on his belly, his wide and sprawling belly that despite the fat, now looks swollen and yellow in parts.”
Garcia ratchets up the intensity with a succession of scenes not for the squeamish: The hospital staff cannot find a scale sturdy enough to weigh a man so obese. Then her father’s ex-girlfriend corners Veronica and confides in heartbreaking detail how he’d begged the woman to perform a certain sex act just the day before.
In the aftermath of his unexpected death, Veronica experiences waves of rage and grief as she attempts to focus on the career break she’s been given. Garcia, who’s also a playwright, layers present-day moments, such as those with Veronica’s commitment-phobic boyfriend Tony, with flashbacks of wretched family dysfunction. In one instance, to get back at his adolescent daughter for defending her mother, Veronica’s father took back her car by having it towed and “then he cancelled the gas card he made a big spectacle of giving me along with the car the day of the party.”
Witnessing this degree of emotional upheaval is unnerving. The reader longs for Veronica to make sense of her life, her anguish, her relationships — and her urge to create art. A younger Dominican friend, Leo, acts as Veronica’s artistic conscience; despite his own pain of having lost his brother in 9/11, he reminds her how much she needs her work to give life meaning.
Salvation comes not through her boyfriend, Tony, whose unwillingness to marry hides a deeper apathy, but through Veronica hunkering down to prepare for the all-important exhibition. Many of Garcia’s most skillful passages involve Veronica concentrating on her art (Garcia herself knows a thing or two about the subject — that’s her work on the book jacket). Sketching with pen and ink, she reflects, “I think about how drawing itself is like the moment at which love, which I don’t always understand, is fulfilled both in its most divine and most human capacity. A masterpiece is the sum of those moments of true connection with the divine, a dialogue with God, a communion — like the wordless dialogue of wall-less stained glass spaces. I know this is why Pollock was a drunk and why Basquiat overdosed. It’s because it’s hard to come away from this feeling, leave through its back door into the real world.”
Garcia also gives the book a rich sense of place, with details that achieve an “only in Miami” specificity, such as the need to run into a cafe to escape a tropical deluge or Calle Ocho celebrations after Fidel Castro cedes power to his brother Raul. As press, guests and collectors fill the gallery space for Veronica’s exhibition, the reader feels almost as much anticipation as the artist. What if she fails? What about Plan B? But Garcia reassures us that a life in art can bring its own wonderful rewards.
Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.
Meet the author
Who: Vanessa Garcia
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com