BOOK REVIEW: In this novel, winner of Milkweed Edition’s National Fiction Prize, a child is severely injured and the uncle of the boy responsible takes the blame. Over the years that follow, two families must wrestle with the trauma in different ways.
For readers of literary fiction, there can be few things as frustrating as encountering an inert protagonist. Central characters who constantly react to events rather than take an active hand in their own lives can mar an otherwise enjoyable read. In its own way, Jon Pineda’s “Apology” acts as solid counterweight to this tendency: It’s explicitly about the consequence of an action, and the outcome of a decision that will haunt two families for years to come. Scenes of play anchor both the beginning of the book and its denouement, but the stakes here are high, the moral questions essential.
“Apology” begins in Virginia in the 1980s, initially focusing on two sets of children. Tom and Teagan Serafino, twins, are 9 years old; as is common among 9-year-olds, their relationship swings between devotion and unwittingly hateful declarations. Mario Guzman lives nearby with his parents and his uncle Exequiel, sometimes nicknamed Shoe, a transient in search of stability after grappling with addictions. As Teagan and Mario play near the construction site where Exequiel works, Mario causes an accident that leaves Teagan seriously injured.
Exequiel decides to take the blame rather than disrupt his nephew’s future — and, from there, four lives diverge. Exequiel is imprisoned; Mario channels his guilt into academic success; guilty over his own treatment of his sister, Tom distances himself from the world, progressing numbly through life; and Teagan, her brain injured in the accident, becomes defined by the aspects of her life that she won’t be able to experience.
Throughout “Apology,” the narrative delves into the corners of the characters’ own histories. Largely, this focuses on Exequiel’s past, which is filled with trauma and, later, with guilt. Pineda is, perhaps, a little too on-the-nose when he described Exequiel’s posture as “still slightly broken.” But it’s these detours — into Exequiel’s life; into the childhood of Tom and Teagan’s father Manny; into the family history of Elle, the woman with whom Exequiel might have found something approaching happiness. For all that an injury to a young woman is at its center, the conflicts in “Apology” predominantly involve males: between fathers and sons, between neighbors, between brothers.
There are certainly elements of the melodramatic in Pineda’s novel. That isn’t meant as a criticism; rather, the elements of “Apology” could have been grafted in from a widescreen studio film in the mid-1950s. And at the heart of the novel is a serious ethical question: Was Exequiel right in offering his future in exchange for Mario’s? “Apology” is structured around an essential and enduring question, and when its characters do the right thing for the wrong reason (or vice versa), the effects of those decisions are strongly felt — and remind the reader of the literary power of decisiveness.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn. His writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review and elsewhere.