I Want to Buy a Vowel I Want to Buy a Vowel by John Welter
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Year: 1996
Pages: 322

If you’ll recall, I recently reviewed Welter’s Night of the Avenging Blowfish, which was itself a re-review of my original reading in 2006. Welter is a report by trade, or at least he was, since I have no idea what became of him since 1996: he stopped writing books and I can find no information about his whereabouts or fate. He wrote three comic novels, usually a blend of more subtle satire about Life, the Universe and Everything along with witty reparte√© that forms the hallmark of a Welter novel.

Though it came out in 1996, the novel seems prescient in its points of thematic intersection: thetl politics of illegal immigration, and the sociology (and politics) of religion. If this hasn’t aged well, nothing has.

The novel’s major plot point (but not protagonist) is Alfredo Santayana, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who memorizes English phrases from television show, and who tells most Anglos that he meets that he would like to buy a vowel. The plot’s protagonist is Eva Galt, a precocious young girl with a similarly precocious younger sister named Eva, who discovers Alfredo and wants to help him.

That solves the illegal immigration part, but what about the religion part? It so happens that Eva’s father is a protestant minister; similar, the father of the book’s antagonist, a young aspiring faux-satanist, is also a protestant minister. One’s more liberal, one’s more literal (and there also conservative); therein lie the two sides of the religious themes in the book. Welter’s choice is obvious, insofar as his conservative preacher character literally and figuratively breeds the “satanic” forces of the novel. It’s important to know that the “satanism” in this context is a young kid attempting to stir up fear by drawing pentagrams in the woods and placing Vienna sausages in the center (having no butchered goats at-hand). In other words, it’s a manufactured sort of idea, given voice by fear.

The alternative seems to be muddling through life, which is the doubtful sort of faith practiced by Eva’s dad. I don’t mean to give the impression that there are a lot of cogent ideas to be had here: it’s a comedic novel above all, with such characterizations serving mostly as humorous foils and not themes or messages.

This was the last novel that Welter wrote before apparently falling off the face of the earth, and I don’t think it’s as strong as his sophomore novel (Blowfish). The characters aren’t nearly as endearing: Alfredo is not only unable to speak English, but probably also a simpleton as well, and one finds it pretty pathetic that his rags-to-riches story is still more like rags-to-rags. And he’s constantly just a comedic prop: though Welter attempts to make us feel for him the same way he writes his characters to feel for him, it doesn’t work, because Alfredo is a 2-D prop used for cheap laughs, as though it’s another job like washing dishes.

And Welter’s a much better writer of the adult perspective than that of children, which is very difficult to do (while staying funny). There was a lot of hum-drum narrative that was neither unconvincing nor particular chuckle-worthy, and I blame a large part of that to the way Welter spread the narration among many different characters, most of whom really don’t need it.

Is it a good book? It’s entertaining, if you need a quick read like a Looney Tune. Welter didn’t exactly churn out the best or funniest books of the 1990s, and this falls below the standard he set with Night of the Avenging Blowfish, which was ultimately engaging if a little too maudlin for my tastes. I Want to Buy a Vowel is ok, but not very satisfying when you get down to it. Perhaps you should avoid this one.

§2139 · August 5, 2008 · Tags: , , , , ·

1 Comment to “I Want to Buy a Vowel”

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