Review: When I Followed the Elephant by Tony R Rodriguez

When I Followed the Elephant
by Tony R Rodriguez
Publisher: Cauliay Publishing
Review: Megan Taylor

‘When I Followed the Elephant’ is a slight, but intriguing novel. Set at the end of the Bush era in 2007, its 134 pages explore the uniquely shadowed world view of Desi Marquiso, a theology teacher at a Catholic High School, living in suburban Fremont with his long-suffering pregnant wife, Camille.

As a result of Rudriguez’s rigorous use of first-person, the reader is plunged directly, and almost mercilessly, into Desi’s head. At the book’s outset, we are warned:

You will not like me.

And indeed there is a lot not to like about our protagonist. Self-righteously Right-wing, Desi believes himself to be a defender of his country and his Catholicism, a champion battling what he perceives as the dual threats of Islam and a liberal left. But as the day-to-day routine of his ‘ordinary’ life becomes increasingly clouded by his opinions, it becomes clear that Desi’s dogged ideals are only oiling the slope of his downfall.

From the start, it’s apparent that Desi’s views are already fostering his isolation. At the end of a school day, the other teachers ‘pretty much nodded their goodbyes, rarely making eye contact’. No one wants to get drawn into his eager discussions, and it is part of Rodriguez’s skill that he reveals Desi’s extremism by the way in which the other characters refuse to respond, rather than rising to the bait – and much of the novel’s humour arises from the disparity between the narrator’s relentless inner enthusiasm and the embarrassed cringing, or simple, casual dismissal – from without.

My grandma and Camille both seemed attentive during my lecture on Christ’s Baptism, His Ministries in various towns, and His Death and Resurrection. Then, after a while of Bible-talk, they both shifted in their seats...I kept preaching. I kept the Spirit alive within my words of Biblical glow.

It isn’t simply that Desi cannot resist expounding his theories, he feels compelled to voice them. Both disagreement and awkward silence only fuel his sense of self-justification. A self-justification that goes hand-in-hand with paranoia (in the novel’s opening pages, we witness Desi convincing himself of his wife’s infidelity because she has purchased him a nose-hair-trimmer). As the story unfolds, Rodriguez reveals that it isn’t Desi’s politics themselves that make him dangerous, but his particular brand of evangelism.

Desi doesn’t merely long for a platform. What he wants is argument, retaliation – he deliberately provokes confrontation. In a powerful cafe scene, Desi finds himself single-mindedly approaching ‘two Arab-looking gentlemen’ in order to attack their beliefs.

My mind popped in a most disturbing way.
I said, Islam had failed his people.
I then told him to hit me.

I told him to hit me.
Please, hit me.

For me, the novel’s greatest strength comes from the exploration of this idea - that while Desi’s own radical faiths drag him closer to a terrorist mind-set that he supposedly abhors, Rodriguez also reveals how a desire for self destruction may lie at the heart of fanaticism.

In her Foreword, scholar Brenda Knight lavishes the author with praise –

Tony R. Rodriguez tells truth with his fiction. You’ll recall that Kerouac himself had a thing or two to say about politics and war before his unceremonious death. The torch is passed.

And while I can’t quite agree that Rodriguez is the next Kerouac (and the text itself seems to argue against the whole debatable, dangerous notion of any singular truth), ‘When I Followed the Elephant’ is a satire that possesses a definite lingering power. And it delivers a fabulous final line to boot.

When I Followed the Elephant is available at Amazon here

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