Title: Down the Rabbit Hole: A Novel
Author: Juan Pablo Villalobos
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux (MacMillan)
Publication Date: October 02, 2012
Paperback: 75 pages
If you’ve read my blog before, and if your powers of observation are scarily strong, you may have detected that a question has been deleted from the informational tidbits section above. You probably didn’t notice, though, and that’s for the best. If you’re going to have a superpower, you’d be wise to hope for something a little less lame than the uncanny ability to pick up on missing minutia. You’d probably want to fly. Or be invincible. Or be able to turn ordinary objects into carrots with a single touch. (I find that last one to be especially tempting). But, if that is your unfortunate lot in life, then you’ve already noticed that the question “Is There a Pooka in This Book?” has been left out. It’s not because the answer is unimportant. It’s because the answer is all-important and I need to expand upon it.
So, is there a pooka in this book?
There’s not a pooka in this book.
This book IS a pooka.
Let me explain. Like a pooka who’s assumed the guise of a normal, domesticated rabbit, “Down the Rabbit Hole” is small and modest-seeming. It’s feather-light and barely physically there at all, containing a mere 75 pages. It’s only three chapters long. (Likewise, in my current body, I weigh-in at just under 5 lbs). But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have presence.
It’s also ostensibly adorable. It’s narrated by a seven-year-old, big-eared Mexican boy named Tochtli. Every night, before going to sleep, Tochtli reads the dictionary. As a result, he has a seriously impressive vocabulary (according to him, it’s “devastating”). Aside from learning new words, one of Tochtli’s greatest passions is collecting hats. He has detective hats, safari hats, and a wide-array of sombreros and three-cornered hats. What he wants more than anything (even more than another hat), though, is a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Like most mini-humans (also known as “children”), and like all pookas, Tochtli is totally weird but that just ups his cuteness factor. He also has a really close relationship with his dad, Yolcaut, which would normally be very touching, as well.
Except that his dad is a drug lord.
Like Pookas, although this book appears to be snuggly, it’s got really powerful teeth. If you get too close or make any sharp movements (like allowing your eyes to travel from left-to-right, for instance), you risk being bitten. Because underneath the surface, “down the rabbit hole,” and behind the stream-of-consciousness style, and the quick, jumping, skipping, tripping, run-on-sentence-ridden prose (which mimics the cadence of a child’s speech), the story that’s being told is astonishingly harsh. Villalobos’ characterization of Tochtli is quixotic and distracting by necessity, because without it, the book would really hurt to read. It’s about the loss of innocence, about how “nothing gold can stay,” especially in a corrupt political climate. It’s about how the choices a parent makes will always effect the child. If your life is not good and pure-hearted, you can’t provide an environment that is. Your child will not remain untainted – will not remain protected, will not remain safe. Sectioning-off or portioning-out your life is not an option. There are no distinct “parts” of life. There’s no “home life” and “work life”; everything constantly bleeds into everything else. Life is a whole.
So, Yolcaut’s “work life” bleeds into his “home life” and imprints itself upon his son. Tochtli finds the room with the guns and uses one to take a life. On top of knowing the words “sordid”, “pathetic”, “immaculate”, “realist” and “precocious,” he also knows the words “macho”, “fucking” and “faggot.” A common father-son bonding activity is playing a game in which “one person says a number of bullets in a part of the body and the other one answers: alive, corpse, or too early to tell.” For example, “One bullet in the heart?” “Corpse.” “Thirty bullets in the little toenail of the left foot?” “Alive.” “Three bullets in the pancreas?” “Too early to tell” (8). Tochtli can’t go to school, he can’t leave the palace, and he has no friends because his father’s occupation necessitates a life lead in secret. Within his small circle, Tochtli experiences betrayal and loss and looks death in the face, like no seven-year old should ever have to. And he’s hardened by it.
It’s a tricky little book. But it’s as artful and comedic as it is dark. It’s heavy without feeling heavy; its meaning sneaks up on you. It’s definitely the most literary book I’ve read this year (it was even nominated for the Guardian First Book award), but it’s literary in a completely manageable and unpretentious way. In short, it was a fantastic novel.
I think everyone should read “Down the Rabbit Hole.” The way I see it, there’s no reason not to. Even if you don’t like it, what will you have wasted? A few hours? How long does it take to read 75 pages? Time-wise, it’ll just be a blip in your life. But I think it’s a story that will stay with you.
And if you’re still worried about the dark places it will take you to, just remember that it’s written by a guy who allowed this to be his author photo:
Pooka Rating: 5 out of 5 Nibbles.