Orest and August
By Steven Garbas
Chicago Center for Literature & Photography, 2015
388 pages, $14.99
Reviewed by Lorie Lopez
We’ve all had that professor before. The one teaching art history or anthropology on Tuesdays at 2 p.m., right in the middle of naptime. The one that looks like he might be homeless and is so focused on his own tangential ramblings that you can full-on, drool-on-your-textbook sleep in class. If you can bring yourself back to those sleepy afternoons, then you can picture what it would be like sitting in on one of Professor Orest Godwin’s history classes.
Professor Orest Godwin of Frog Hollow, Connecticut, is the hero in Garbas’ novel, Orest and August. We meet him at the end of his career as a historian and history professor at Elswit College in Northern California. After accidentally burning down part of his house and making a campus-wide spectacle of himself with his rye-soaked, bizarre lectures and senile fits, the Provost has no choice but to dismiss Orest from his duties. But our hero won’t be going down without a fight—or alone. Orest enlists (read: blackmails) the help of failing Elswit student August Prichard to join him in his quest for justice in return for the, “illustrious Blackmore Scholarship for Honor and Courage.” Their crusade takes them from California to Oaxaca, Mexico, riding rickety, slapdash motorbikes that would make your cousin’s friend’s hooptie look like an Audi. And like any good adventure story, the motorcycles have names: Orest rides his enigmatic “Ginevra” and Augie with his faithful scooter, “Pigeon.” For good measure, Orest brings a violin case full of rye, money and two replica pistols. To make the trip completely official, Orest gets decked out in full Indiana Jones/Musketeer costume, including a Stetson and a cape because, of course.
But what danger could befall a geriatric revolutionary and a dullard college student on their way to Mexico? Plenty, it turns out. Along their way, Orest and Augie cross paths with a number of equally lost and twisted characters: hippie, wanna-be actors, a gang of racist minutemen, pimps and prostitutes, and, perhaps the most enjoyable, an absolutely psychopathic “priest” with his own “asylum” in the Mexican desert.
It’s enjoyable getting to know Orest’s character through flashbacks from his youth with his brother and especially his bombastic one-liners aimed at Augie, “As you still await puberty, I will forgive your ignorance” or, “I am the Viscount of Berkley and you can address me as Lord.” These would surely go over equally well at Starbucks.
It’s also refreshing to see an elderly person as a protagonist, notably one that we suspect might have a condition such as Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia. You can make the argument, however, that while Orest’s outbursts and eccentricities make life just that much more difficult for people he interacts with, he did not seem to be suffering from these ailments. Throughout the journey, Orest seemed to be extremely focused on the goal, which was making it to Oaxaca as fast as possible. Whenever engaging with other people, he always responded to interactions appropriately, albeit with grand metaphor and not necessarily politely or peacefully. All of his flowery speech aside, the meaning of everything that Orest has to say in response to the situations he finds himself in, technically makes sense. We know that he fancies himself a heroic, Musketeer/martyr/revolutionary, who speaks like he’s stuck in the 19th Century—and he behaves accordingly. While this behavior is not compatible for ease of everyday living in the society he actually lives in, a person truly suffering from Dementia or Alzheimer’s probably wouldn’t be able to execute such a plan with the stamina Orest displays. Despite his foibles, Orest embodies the Quixotic archetype that remains endearing to so many readers.
The pace is smooth and makes for a pleasant read. You’re never too far away from the next motorcycle crash that leads Orest and Augie to the next mini-misadventure. Despite the steady pace of events, the set-up becomes a bit formulaic and predictable. Orest would accelerate Ginevra, Augie struggles to keep up. Orest crashes, Augie comes to help. Strangers get involved, Orest goes on one of his grandiloquent tirades, fake pistols drawn, while Augie tries to placate the situation, sometimes ineffectively.
Peasant plights and human rights aside, it’s clear that Orest is seeking some sort of redemption for himself on this journey to Oaxaca. It is his burning need to go somewhere, do something crazy, just to prove to ourselves and other people that we’re not who we thought we were. But as much as Orest’s passionate and whimsical fervor for Oaxacan social justice is endearing, the classic narrative unfolding is a bit overdone: a white guy goes to a place where brown people need rescuing and saves the day. We know, too, that Orest doesn’t even speak Spanish and so the whole trip, as everything goes with Orest, feels a bit contrived. Orest ends up crashing through a few barricades and martyrs himself on the grounds of Oaxaca University in the midst of a clash between government soldiers and students. Word gets back home about his heroic deeds and he gains some posthumous notoriety. In this sense we know that going to Oaxaca wasn’t really about helping the cause, it was about Orest redeeming himself; not letting his entire career be defined by his bumbling senility.
Overall, Orest and August is an enjoyable read. However, it’s a little disappointing in its predictability, especially the notion of an American waltzing in on a foreign conflict as means of achieving glorifying martyrdom back home. It is perhaps something to read in between star-gazing and wondering what adventures to find next.