Mind you, I’m maddeningly frugal, but I bought 3 copies of this book so I could give some to friends, and I need to buy more. This book is hard to find online and in USA bookstores because the Australia Harper Collins has not released this gem in the United States. Bring it on, Harper! If Kent Haruf’s literary masterpiece PLAIN SONG made the best seller lists and got made into a movie (not a very good film, sorry to say), Rod Usher’s novel should top of the NYT list and be filmed as beautifully as THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR and THE WAKING OF NED DEVINE were.
Note: photos are misleading. Rod’s prose did not put my cats to sleep–but Bobinski, the little rascal, likes to sleep on books, paper bags, backpacks, any flat surface that presents itself. He has not been allowed to make his bed upon Rod Usher. Merlin, the big cat, likes to explore textures with his massive paws. POOR MAN’S WEALTH has a textured cover, high quality and intriguing, proof that this jewel of a novel is leagues above those PODs and small-press book covers that embarrass the writer as well as the publisher. You really can judge a book by the cover, when the superb quality of this book cover not only will not disappoint, but the story is even better than the cover. Rich and colorful and oh-so-human, I’d say this book cover, beautiful as it is (and photos do not capture the sumptiousness of this cover), didn’t even begin to capture the splendor of the novel.
The title of the novel is from the poem “Sleep” by Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586): COME, Sleep; O Sleep! the certain knot of peace…The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release. The story opens with a narcoleptic secretary, Marisol, whose sudden naps draw curiosity seekers to the window of an undertakers’s office, and our narrator, El Gordo, imagines she is the reason business thrives in the neighboring town of Juar. Mayor El Gordo’s own pueblo is so stagnant, bus service has just been cut. Seeking ways to put Higot back on the map, he dreams up the top-secret Marisol Committee, in which he and the town council plot a hoax. What if not just one person, but anyone or everyone in Higot was prone to the harmless little attacks of narcolepsy? The hoax, a sudden onset of unpremeditated public “sleeps,” draws in busloads of gawking tourists and medical examiners, and Higot residents begin to wish for something better than tourism to revive their dying town.
As an embarrassed narcoleptic myself, I confess to being biased in favor of the theme of this novel, and enchanted by the author’s thank you to Professor J.D. Parks for permission to quote from the book SLEEP AND ITS DISORDERS.
That disclaimer aside, POOR MAN’S WEALTH really is the best novel of the century!
Australian blogger Amy Roil www.bookwitch1.blogspot.com recaps the novel like this:
In a dust-filled heat haze … lies Higot, a tobacco town with not even a bus service to its nearest neighbour. It’s difficult to fool gossip-starved locals in a place where ‘the smallest break in sameness is a call to village eyes’. But the ‘Marisol Committee’, instigated by poetry-loving mayor El Gordo (‘fat one’) manages to create a hoax in which even the most suspicious of residents unknowingly partakes.
Narrated in endearing English gleaned from the 23,000 books left to him by a generous benefactor, El Gordo is a man of contrasts. Bitten by the ‘black dog’ inside, but with a jolly exterior, solitary but craving company, Higot’s mayor embarks on a series of deceptions and secrets that will soon attract the interest of a far more dangerous audience. In what is primarily a love story, Rod Usher has created a delightfully light-hearted fable that politely wags its finger at meddlers. Usher’s style is enchantingly simple, consistently poking fun at the bizarre turns of phrase we English speakers employ: ‘Marisol Ruiz is not what you … call a chicken of the Spring.’ Poor Man’s Wealth harks vaguely back to Louis de Berniere’s magic realist period, if only because of its setting in a Spanish-speaking country ruled by a military junta. But the violent undercurrent that underpins much of de Berniere’s work is absent in Usher’s novel (the junta is a rather pushy background annoyance rather than an evil regime).
As the title suggests, we’re told that riches come not from money but human relationships – and all is not as it seems. Like the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear, village mad man Bartolomeo is the only one who sees clearly and it is he who is responsible for Higot’s ultimate salvation. Poor Man’s Wealth is a non-taxing, pleasant read, ideal for lazing with by the water this summer.
I would love to say more about Bartolomeo, the deaf-mute black “village idiot,”but can only promise that like everyone and everything in the novel, Bartolomeo is more than he seems to be. And no author seems to nail physical handicaps, mental illness or alienation the way Rod Usher can. His novel* FLORID STATES is a riveting and convincing trip into the mind of a schizophrenic, and a haunting, eye-opening look at the prejudices the mentally ill can suffer from small town folk. A MAN OF MARBLES is an equally sensitive, insightful, endearing portrayal of a man who may not be mentally ill or deficient, but everyone in town sure likes to think so.
Rod Usher’s prose is stellar, but I’d love his characters even in the hands of a lesser author. They’re so authentic, I’d swear all three of his novels were memoirs, not fiction. Obviously, Rod cannot be Stavro “Stan” Kristopolis and Ned Quinn and El Gordo, nor all the supporting characters, but he nails “voice” and pov to the point he could convince readers that he really is all these people in real life.
Our humble narrator, El Gordo, is earnest and eager to tell his story in good English–and to impress us with all his quotations from the thousands of books he’s read, in English, thanks to the legacy of a part-time British resident. In a small community where any shared secret is sure to be headline news, El Gordo is respectful and discreet with everyone’s confidence. The poor man is so circumspect, even his own emotions are held in check at times when they most need to be liberated. He is so sure of his perceptions, with results that range from comical to poignant to semi-tragic. The Sparrow (as one of the spinster sisters is called), a member of the Marisol committee, begins to see the familiar fat man with new eyes, and at the same time, his awareness of this tiny but strong woman gradually intensifies.
Witty, erudite, wise, compassionate, and trustworthy, El Gordo wins the trust of the most guarded and reserved townfolk. Higot is an obscure village in an unnamed Spanish speaking country under military rule. Captain Orgullo, the thorn in El Gordo’s flesh, is commandant of the Guardia cuartel, a thorn to everyone in town. For all the obstacles the Guardia puts in the way of this little town’s impudent success, El Gordo and his fellow councilmen contrive a way out. When it appears that El Gordo has been defeated, the most uncooperative of all Higot residents comes through, and all the bumbling but magnanimous intentions of El Gordo come to fruition in ways bigger than he ever dared to dream.
The novel is filled with irony on several levels and in various ways, but plot spoilers keep me from reveling in them here. The deaf-mute hunchback, the spinster sisters, the landscape; the weeds; the economy-stimulating tourists; local teens who now have money to buy noisy, annoying motorcycles; tourist trinkets, especially the little statues of the mayor that come to be known as El Gordo’s children; the overbearing military personnel out to ruin the fun; an elderly widow, a Brit and his butler and a library full of books — I can’t begin to do justice summing up all the perfect details in this narrative. Not once does Usher strike a false note or mention something irrelevant. Everything is right about this book. No exploding helicopters, no life or death races against the clock, no “Will he learn to set aside his fears and embrace true love when it finds him at last” cliches, no 50 Shades of graphic sex–well, there is that 30-mph-hour sex scene and a galloping poem that blow 50 Shades out of the water, even if the most explicit words in El Gordo’s recollection of Browning involve three horsemen (And into the midnight we galloped abreast). Graphic/explicit will never be as memorable or moving as the subtle and poetic prose of Rod Usher.
I hope Poor Man’s Wealth will be made into a movie. The aforementioned Waking of Ned Devine and Milagro Beanfield War demonstrate that insightful, wise, humorous novels like Usher’s can translated into cinema masterpieces.
* Rod Ushers’ first novel, A MAN OF MARBLES (Angus&Robertson, 1989, 1995) was highly praised by reviewers, as was his second novel, FLORID STATES (Simon & Schuster, 1990; Allison and Busby (UK), 1999), which was shortlisted for the MIND Book of the Year award. Rod’s poetry is frequently published in Australian litmags such as QUADRANT, ISLAND and MEANJIN. Posts he has held include Literary Editor of THE AGE, chief sub-editor of THE SUNDAY TIMES (London), and senior writer for TIME MAGAZINE′s European edition.