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Blood-Drenched Beard: A Novel

Hunter Braithwaite

Blood-Drenched Beard: A Novel. Daniel Galera translated by Alison Entrekin, 384 pages. Penguin.

Having recently moved away from the beach and come into possession of a cat, I was a little too thrilled to read this novel about moving to the beach and coming into possession of a dog. Daniel Galera’s Blood-Drenched Beard is the story of young man who copes with a familial legacy of murder and suicide by moving to the Brazilian surf town of Garopaba.

Once there, the tranquility soon turns to stagnation—an increasing tension that squeezes like a surfboard leash wrapped too tight around your ankle. This is Galera’s fourth novel, his first to appear in English. The young Brazilian writer is also the translator of Zadie Smith, John Cheever, and David Mitchell. The novel, nimbly translated by Alison Entrekin, has already been compared to the work of Roberto Bolaño, both in tone and content, evidence of an unfair habit of assigning writers of different times and place to the same puny bin marked translation. That said, both South American writers do have a knack for lyricism and for molar-cracking violence.

What happens is this. The unnamed hero’s father kills himself (in a very genteel fashion: cognac, pistol), but not before telling him that his own father was murdered fifty years prior. He also asks his son to have his dog euthanized after he passes. But of course his son can’t do that, because he’d have no one to care for as he goes about what follows—a quest, with a capital Q.

The hero arrives in Garopaba, dog in tow, some time later. He acclimates with some light romantic misadventure and a drunken friendship with Bonobo, a Buddhist bed and breakfast owner. He also grows a beard (the reader waits for the titular blood-drenching, which will come much later) and begins to ask the locals about his grandfather, Gaudério, who apparently was a bit of a firecracker back in the day. Gaudério carried around a long knife and wasn’t afraid to use it, although he often just spanked people with the broad side. Funny thing though, most of the locals don’t remember him, and those who do start to get really nervous, especially when asked about his death. The body, it seems, was never found. This mystery casts a long shadow over the book, one with neo-noir edges and a nearly supernatural center. The locals keep their distance.

Did I mention that the protagonist cannot remember anyone’s face, thanks to a lack of oxygen at birth? Prosopagnosia is a real disease—you can consult Oliver Sacks—and here it does three things. To begin with, it adds to the novel’s threatening detachment. It creates a fog of mystery in which the hero and the reader are both constantly taken by surprise. It’s like the first sentence of Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s genre-forming tale of death by the boardwalk: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” In Greene’s book, they eventually get faces and names. But here, they remain faceless until it’s too late. And by the end of the book, you realize that it’s always been too late.

Secondly, the face blindness shores that detachment up against patches of rich, novelistic detail. Since he cannot remember faces, he works hard to remember everything else. Speaking of the young mother Dália, whose character is as bright and combustible as a flashbulb, he notices how “when her hand holds something, her fingertips press alternately as if trying to remember how to play a tune on the piano.” If Galera were less of a writer, this would be occasion for showboating, but he fuses a bright landscape out of these observations, as if he’s writing out a Seurat, glance by glance.

Finally, it keeps him on his toes with the ladies. Of his inability to remember her face in the morning, his first girlfriend sighs, “You’re the only person in the world with a good excuse for it.”

The constant awakening he feels when in the presence of anyone, be they strangers or old friends, affects the book’s relationship to time. With the exception of pop culture references like the Kings of Convenience, Tom Hanks in Castaway, and Playstation 2, the book is remarkably timeless. The sentences are set in the present tense, with minimal punctuation, as if they’re etched somewhere. They bathe in the eternal now of dreamy vacation towns dotting southern coasts. Some of the book’s most poignant passages are reserved for how life crashes forward as the past ebbs away.

Not that it’s a perfect outing. Footnotes block the flow of the prose, although the writer luckily seems to tire of them as the book goes on. There are a few moments when the story gets caught up on itself, like when the hero is drinking cheap wine in a brothel with a hooker who explains the origins of the Nietzsche quote tattooed on her lower back. Anyone who has tasted the wine in a strip club doesn’t need Nietzsche to tell them that God is dead.

In a remarkable passage toward the end of the book, he swims out to sea and, in a clairvoyant Whitmanesque list, catalogs all that is happening around him:

In the health clinic, the doctor on duty is sewing up the face of a handsome surfer who hurt himself with his surfboard on the rocks in Ferrugem, using plastic surgery stitches to try to preserve his appearance as much as possible, while his girlfriend records the procedure with the camera on her cell phone. A group of young women working in lottery houses, pharmacies, and clothing shops exchange text messages to arrange the details of a secret party with champagne and vibrators that night. A coral snake slithers over the foot of a small-time drug dealer smoking marijuana on Siriú Hill without him notching. A pyromaniac’s car is seized because he was driving without a license, and he decides to set fire to the entire town. In the municipal school, a teenage boy wants to talk to the girl he lost his virginity to the night before after the Campinense Club ball but isn’t sure of her name.

The passage continues in this way, following the townspeople as they go about their relaxed, terrifying ways. Blood- Drenched Beard is the best summer read I’ve had all winter.