Doesn't everyone have a couple of jackass uncles? You know, the kind who'll buy a giant pig for a huge party on their Chicago driveway, only to find that they can't shove it in the trunk of a Cutlass without destroying a good deal of property and familial patience?
Maybe that's not a universal experience, but in his new novel, "The Konkans," Tony D'Souza creates characters -- like those pig-packing party boys -- that are so human and likable that even their most outrageous actions seem understandable. As in his 2006 debut novel, "Whiteman," D'Souza draws on his personal history to craft a tragic yet warm story about eccentrics who quickly become welcome and forgivable.
The title refers to a small ethnic group in India that converted to Catholicism during roughly 450 years of Portuguese colonial rule, which ended in 1961. Konkans retain more European habits than the more numerous Muslims and Hindus of the subcontinent. As D'Souza (who is half Konkan) tells it, these Europhiles tell their children romantic myths about colonial times and distinguish themselves from other Indians by such differences as their willingness to eat pork.
But these nuances mean little after Konkans emigrate to the United States: Lawrence D'Sai, the father of the book's narrator, Francisco, settles in Chicago during the racist '70s with his white Peace Corps wife, Denise, and is dismayed to find himself relegated to the same second-class status as other nonwhite immigrants.
Lawrence aspires to the suburban businessman's life, while Denise, Francisco's mother, longs for the frangipani-scented world she thought she was marrying into when she fell for Lawrence back in India. The farther Lawrence moves from the diversity of Chicago, the deeper her despair. As Lawrence becomes a sullen, status-grasping drunk, she has an affair with Lawrence's younger brother, Sam, who's less responsible than Lawrence but also less anxious to cast off his Indian-ness.
Underlying their romance are astute observations about the fungible nature of identity and culture. Is a white woman in a sari a pathetic poseur? Kind of, D'Souza allows, but she's also a tragic figure escaping her own grim upbringing to embrace an environment that moved her deeply. Is it self-hating for an Indian family to deify Vasco da Gama? Probably, D'Souza implies, but his portrait of the D'Sai family reveals a history so thick with distortions that embracing a less-varnished truth would tear down the pride that sustains them.
The adult Francisco tells the story of this doomed love triangle with an omniscience his toddler eyes couldn't have possessed, and D'Souza uses the wistful, reconstructive nature of recollection to see the beauty amid the hopelessness and to draw parallels between the lies inherent in the D'Sai family and the false mythology of the Konkans.
"The Konkans" is not just ethnography. D'Souza stays character-focused throughout the novel, gently mixing irony and fatalism with a warm affection for humans and the stupid things they do. A pig may die an inelegant, pointless death, but D'Souza makes us believe it was one of those wacky, sad things that happen in every family.
Cherie Parker is a freelance journalist and entertainment writer in Washington, D.C.