A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: A profound and moving story of loss and belonging, of being true to yourself and your needs and dreams, and above all, it’s a beautiful contemplation on family.
Brazilian graffiti artist Mateo Amaral is looking for his heaven spot, the one perfect place to paint. His co-worker Fletcher Bradford is looking for a heaven spot of his own, and his is even more elusive. Out since age 12, Fletcher’s been around more blocks than Mateo has ever painted. He’s dated all the jerks, all the creeps, all the losers in between. At 26 he’s decided the only way to meet a nice guy is just never to give him a chance to prove otherwise. When he’s introduced to Mateo, Fletcher expects to add another notch to his bedpost. But Mateo is different—and from him Fletcher will rediscover a long-lost feeling—surprise. What Fletcher finds in the trunk of Mateo’s car will change his life in ways he never imagined—and may help him find what he’s always wanted.
This is one of those books that are hard to review coherently because of the sheer amount of thought, empathy, and ideas that it contains. It’s a book that would repay several readings, preferably over a wide span of time, because what’s important on the first read-through will not be as important the second time, and this is definitely a story that has layers—not so much like an onion, but perhaps more like the layers of paint a graffiti artist lays down and builds upon.
Fletcher is a copyeditor at a publishing house in Boston. He doesn’t realise it, but he’s been in a limbo for a while now. He doesn’t enjoy his job, he sleeps with guys but never gets serious; he’s published a novel but hasn’t been able to write anything good since; he shares an apartment with his best friend Cara, who’s the long-term girlfriend of his other best friend Jamar, but apart from them, he has no real meaningful ties. When a new IT guy, Mateo, starts at his workplace, Fletcher is intrigued by the streaks of paint on Mateo’s hands. Fletcher is a man who has a memory for detail, and he finds himself watching out for the paint on Mateo’s hands over the next few weeks, and his casual interest develops into a crush.
Small things start changing in Fletcher’s life. He sleeps with his closest gay friend, Alex, an act that separates them rather than brings them closer. Then Alex reveals that he’s dating a guy called Jimmy, who was Fletcher’s dream guy at college. Back then, Jimmy was straight. Now he’s not, and Fletcher has a longing to nail ‘the one that got away’. In the meantime, Fletcher’s attraction to Mateo keeps growing, and one day while he’s helping to fix Mateo’s car, he stumbles across a bunch of spray cans.
Mateo is a graffiti artist—a good one. A famous one, or rather, an infamous one. A graffiti artist the cops would love to catch. He’s a little like the UK street artist Banksy, and his major works consist of what Fletcher calls the Facts—statements such as ‘sky is blue’ with accompanying artwork. To avoid detection, Mateo works on several Facts at a time around the city and if any other graffiti artist is around, he has a secondary identity as a tagger—someone who signs their nickname and doodles smaller designs.
Though he’s reluctant to open up at first, Mateo invites Fletcher along on one of his painting excursions. Soon Fletcher is joining in, picking himself a nickname ‘Arrowman’ and tagging his name on walls. In Mateo’s opinion, there’s not much that separates a novelist and a graffiti artist—both play with words and truth—and soon he and Fletcher fall into a relationship that’s both comfortable and uneasy.
Mateo is the best thing that’s ever happened to him, but Fletcher is torn over a lot of things. He can’t always square away the fact that he’s committing a crime when they go out with the spray cans; his notions of public space clash with Mateo’s ideas. Mateo excites him in more than just the bedroom, but at the same time, Mateo represents change, and like most people, Fletcher is both intrigued and repelled by the concept of change: it’s always more comfortable in the status quo even if you’re not completely content there, and his relationship with Mateo is pulling him further and further out of his comfort zone towards the unknown.
Then Cara announces that she’s pregnant, and she and Jamar get married. Fletcher starts to re-evaluate his life and his future with Mateo, and then, on Valentine’s Day, a whole series of events gets put into motion that will change Fletcher forever…
There’s so much to say about The Painting of Porcupine City. It’s a book you experience as well as read, and though it took me a while to adjust to the style (I’ve been reading too much disposable literature these days :lol:), I was soon immersed in the story and was annoyed when I had to put it down. All the characters feel real, and I was so caught up in events that I did actually say out loud ‘don’t do that, you idiot!’ at one moment and I did get teary-eyed over another scene.
But it’s about so much more than the characters. This is a proper literary novel, and its themes are wide-ranging and have an impact when you least expect it. Denial, family, community, truth, art, illusion… it’s all here, woven into the narrative in an elegant, understated way.
For me the key theme was that of denial. It’s ironic, because Fletcher has been out and proud since he was 12 years old and yet he constantly denies himself the one thing he craves—family. Even when it’s presented to him as potential in the form of Mateo, Fletcher finds a way to deny it again. It’s only when family is forced upon him towards the end of the book that Fletcher can understand himself and his needs.
Fletcher struggles to share Mateo with the city and with his art. I loved the scenes of the two of them on their nocturnal trips as Mateo teaches Fletcher what it’s like to be a graffiti artist. But like all artists, there’s a zone that Mateo sinks into when he’s painting, and Fletcher feels like he can’t touch him there, and gets jealous and almost afraid (again the irony: when Fletcher was writing his novel, he sank so deeply into the zone that Jamar staged an intervention to drag him back into reality).
Mateo belongs to three different worlds—Boston, Sao Paulo, and his art, but he’s only truly comfortable when he’s painting, and Fletcher increasingly feels alienated and unable to share. Partly there’s a fear of commitment, which again is hugely ironic, given that the one thing that he’s always wanted is a family or at least the sense of a family—but also there’s this almost Proustian nostalgia, typified by his lusting over Jimmy. The book’s pivotal moment revolves around Jimmy, who is just a normal asshole-ish type of guy and nowhere near as special as Fletcher has built him up to be, but it’s because of what happens with Jimmy that Fletcher truly starts to realise what he’s got, what he’s had, and what he could be—and he wouldn’t be in that position without Mateo.
Once Mateo is firmly anchored in the story as a character, there’s a shift in style. Instead of Fletcher’s first person POV, we move into third person POV while we see Mateo’s life with his landlady and, later, his time in Sao Paulo. But Fletcher’s POV is never far away, and we’re reminded that this is a narrative within a narrative—and it may not even be a true narrative (the device harking back to an early part of the book where Mateo gives the bare facts of his father’s affair with the woman who is now Mateo’s landlady, and he asks Fletcher to make fiction from fact and ‘invent’ how the affair had started). This, plus other stylistic devices and story elements particularly in the last third of the book, move the novel towards magic realism. It put me a little in mind of Salman Rushdie’s earlier works; in both, the fancy is fully meshed with reality to create a hyper-reality in places.
As with Mateo’s street art of the Facts, nothing’s ever out of place in this book. There’s no throwaway lines or random walk-on characters. Seemingly insignificant moments circle back to have immense relevance later in the story, and like the Facts, these moments are touched upon with enough emphasis that you just know they’ll become important later; like the Facts, they’re things that stare you in the face and you think you know what they signify, but maybe you don’t. Now that’s the mark of a damn good storyteller and an excellent craftsman.
Is Porcupine City perfect? No, of course not. For a self-published book of this length there’s fewer typos than the norm in a pro-published book, so when they do come along, they’re quite jarring. I personally didn’t care for one of the twists in the narrative, although I can appreciate why it was necessary, and so for me that part was something I admired more on a technical level than on an emotional level, and I finished the last 70 pages or so less invested than I’d have liked to have been by that point. But that doesn’t detract from the beauty of this story and its complex, myriad messages. It’s at once immersive and detached, a difficult technique to pull off, but Monopoli makes it work so well.
This really is one of those books that’ll stay with you for a long time. Strongly recommended.