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Books of The Times; An Insolent Sun Heats the Passions

Published: June 25, 1988
LEAD: Palm Lattitudes By Kate Braverman 384 pages. Linden Press/Simon & Schuster. $18.95.

The Palm Latitudes of Kate Braverman's passionate new novel are those hot, steamy places to the south where the sun is insolent and cactuses and banyan trees and palms flourish in the heavy, perfumed air. The colors here are intense - tropic greens and hot, riotous pinks and reds. Emotions, too, tend to run quickly to the violent and extreme. Writing in lush, sensuous prose, Ms. Braverman conjures up Mexico City, ''where the air was dense and chaotic,'' where ''the smell of an eradicated civilization'' casts a lingering curse. She conjures up Miami, ''an alien and insignificant city where even the seasons were indistinct,'' and Las Vegas, that ''outrage of neon,'' a ''demonic calligraphy imposed upon a sleeping desert, a region quiet as the moon.''

Most insistently of all, she conjures up Los Angeles, the City of Angels, where fires burn in the hills and ash falls from the sky, a city (in her telling) waiting for apocalypse: ''This city which was once an outpost of Spain and once a region of Mexico. This city webbed with boulevards bearing the names of Spanish psychotics and saints. This incomplete city which seems to have no recognizable past, no ground that could be called unassailably sacred. This incomplete city that speaks of an impending terror.''

If the Los Angeles of ''Palm Latitudes'' owes something to the cities described by Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, it still emerges as a wholly distinctive world. Ms. Braverman has focused not on Hollywood or the seedy film noir world of the disaffected, but on the barrio in East Los Angeles where Chicanos and newly arrived immigrants struggle to reconcile their memories of older traditions and simpler values with the seductive promises of the American dream. More specifically, she has focused on Flores Street, and the lives of three women whose fates will intersect.

The first of these women is Francisca Ramos, a young girl from a war-ravaged country to the south, who finds work as a domestic: ''Her job was washing and polishing, waxing and ironing and scrubbing. Her life was a dance. These were the elements of her choreography. And within these limited possibilities, Francisca discovered a certain grace, a fluidity and purpose which soothed her.'' When she falls in love with Ramon, a rich, coke-snorting cad, however, her life will swerve irrevocably in a new direction. With Ramon, Francisca will wait for private cars to pick her up in Caracas, Managua and Guadalajara; she will stay in the fanciest hotel suites and learn to order ''bouquets of roses, a dozen each day.'' After he leaves her, Francisca finds it impossible to resume her former life. There are liaisons with other men, even a marriage; but she will grow increasingly restless, drift further and further away from her past. She will eventually become the most famous whore in the barrio - La Puta de la Luna.

The second of Ms. Braverman's women is Gloria Hernandez, who left Mexico to begin a new life with her husband, Miguel, in the United States. On her 19th birthday, they moved into a new house in East Los Angeles: ''That first night, the only lights in the house were the candles on my birthday cake, the amber streetlamps on the sidewalk below and the radiant white beams of the moon. It occurred to me then that our arrival on Flores Street was a kind of ritual, an initiation. My future would be measured in ambers and flames. Perhaps I intuited something then, and our first night on Flores Street was, in fact, a prophecy.'' Over the years, Gloria bears two sons. Miguel, meanwhile, goes off to fight in Vietnam and returns more eager than ever to become a complete American. His prideful expertise in English will estrange Gloria further; and when he begins a flirtation with a white neighbor, Gloria's anger and frustration will finally erupt, with predictably violent and tragic results.

       The third woman in ''Palm Latitudes'' is Gloria's neighbor Marta Ortega, an ancient mestizo, who cultivates, in her back yard, a miraculous garden of rare orchids, impossible hybrids created by her secret knowledge of ''the antique magic and science that had somehow survived the Conquistadores.'' Marta is also blessed with a kind of second sight, and she recognizes in the changes within her own family - the crisscrossing destinies of her daughters and their children - ''an unequivocal sense of cycles, of completion and return.''

Although she is never entirely successful in making these triptychs cohere into an organic whole, Ms. Braverman ties the stories of Marta, Gloria and Francisca together with her poetically patterned writing (motifs involving flowers, water and the moon recur in each of the women's tales). She also makes it clear that their individual experiences, as women and as aliens in an American culture, are meant to be representative of something larger. Some of her views on the battle between the sexes read like angry feminist cliches: her heroines are constantly whining that men treat their wives like appliances, that marriage is a form of bondage. And some of her comparisons between America and the third world, between men and women, between first- and second-generation immigrants, seem equally crude.

In the end, though, such complaints on the part of the reader pale beside the author's genuine achievement. Ms. Braverman possesses a magical, incantory voice and the ability to loft ordinary lives into the heightened world of myth, and in using these gifts to recount the tales of these three women she has succeeded in creating a work of hallucinatory, poetic power.


Gulf and Westernd(Simon & Schuster)




Copyright 2005-2006, Kate Braverman.