The Tango of the Shipwreck: A Novel and
AIDS: The Novelette
by Joseph F. Delgado
Besus & Abadi Ltd.
Reviewed by Hank Trout
Joseph F. Delgado is a prolific novelist, short story writer, professor of Hispanic literature, book critic, and filmmaker whose poem “Mariological Recitative of Mystical Pharmacology” appeared in A&U in April 2018 and whose The Other Passover was reviewed here in November 2020. He has now added two more works of fiction to his oeuvre.
The shorter of the two, AIDS: The Novelette, reads to me more like a monologue to be performed. The piece is comprised of short sketches or memories. The narrator is an elder, economically successful Hispanic man, living with HIV for decades, who reminisces about his positive diagnosis (which led to an AIDS diagnosis later), his trouble with various early HIV medications, his friends, night sweats, the innumerable doctor’s office visits, and other maladies any HIV-positive person will recognize. He mourns friends lost to AIDS but professes no experience of “survivor’s guilt.” The tone varies from wistfulness to anger to “Why me?” self-pity. Nearly blind from CMV infection, the narrator ends the story in his study, clearing off his desk because “No one knows what might happen next.”
The longer work, The Tango of the Shipwreck, is a heftier, more complex, more rewarding read. The main character Tomas Eduardo Principe grows up in poverty in Puerto Rico with a malicious mother and a father who routinely molested Tomas, sometimes along with his uncle, from an early age. When the abuse is discovered, Tomas’ father and uncle manage to turn things around so that Tomas is blamed—labeled a maricón, a puta. His mother orders him from the house, and he winds up staying with an aunt and uncle who won’t even give him a house key.
Working in a small jewelry store, Tomas meets an older gentleman who frequents the shop. Javier Toro is a very successful businessman who takes a shine to Tomas. They begin meeting for lunches, then dinners, and eventually Tomas moves in with Javier and begins his education to become a mechanical engineer. Javier and Tomas form an easy, love-filled relationship, with Javier smoothing the rough off the diamond that Tomas is to become. To solidify their relationship in pre-marriage equality days, Javier adopts Tomas, who changes his name (also to Javier Toro) and goes by Javi from then on. Their genuine bliss crashes and burns when the older Javier suffers a burst aneurism and instantly dies in his office.
Devastated by the loss of his lover, Javi moves to San Francisco, where he becomes a star engineer, creating structural supports designed to withstand severe seismic activities. His rising career stardom eclipses his personal life—he hasn’t had sex with anyone since Javier’s death. To fill his time, in addition to singing tango songs once a week in a nightclub, he decides to volunteer tutoring struggling students at a youth center. There he meets Gabriel, a seventeen-year-old gay man who, like Javi, was thrown out of his home for being queer. Gabriel had been living and hustling on the streets and knew “kindness” only as a transactional thing—be kind to me, and I’ll blow you. Javi gives Gabriel his first taste of genuine love. For the next several years, Javi and Gabriel enjoy a very rich, but strictly father-son relationship. Under Javi’s tutorship, Gabriel blossoms into a compassionate, talented, financially successful young gay man.
Along the way, Javi meets and develops a business relationship with Walt, a former linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers who has set up a successful financial advisory firm and is interested in financing and using Javi’s work on abating seismic activity. Before long, Javi has fallen in love with Walt, who pursued him like a heat-seeking missile. Walt moves in with Javi, and together they raise Gabriel. A happier non-nuclear family could not exist, based on unconditional love and emotional commitment, instead of biological blood.
That happiness vanishes in an instant when Gabriel is diagnosed with AIDS. Javi and Walt find a way to carry on.
The novel weaves together two threads of a story. One, is the story I’ve summarized here; the other story puts us at Javi’s mother’s funeral several years later. As Delgado tells that story, he weaves it around and into the stories of Tomas and Javier and Gabriel and Walt. Due to family dysfunction, the funeral is as awkward as you might imagine. Relatives and friends of his mother, whom he doesn’t know or remember, inundate him with condolences, none of which he finds very sincere. When it is time for Javi (still Tomas to them) to speak, he uses the opportunity to read the congregants like a rosary, up one side and down the other.
While I enjoyed reading Tango, the book is not without its faults. The major fault for me is Delgado’s treatment of Gabriel’s diagnosis and death. Tango is 441 pages; Gabriel is diagnosed on page 399; on page 404, he’s dead. When I read those five pages, I felt cheated—no, I felt Gabriel was cheated. Such a vibrant, loving, energetic, compassionate character deserved more than five pages devoted to his death. But then again, I remember that sometimes AIDS deaths did indeed come that quickly, that shockingly. I wanted more time to mourn Gabriel than Delgado gives us. Otherwise, this is a heartfelt, engrossing novel.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-one-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.