People often read to escape, but Forrest Hylton’s first book-length fiction reminds us how grounded we usually remain. Most books are written in one language, regardless of how many languages the characters speak, how far around the universe they themselves travel. Vanishing Acts is written in at least as much Spanish as it is English. Readers who don’t read Spanish may feel as the book’s clumsy minor character does when he visits a dance club: “Alejandro stuffs his ears with bits of napkins, takes another shot of rum, and, looking bewildered, fills his mouth with popcorn.” (If you prefer all English, just flip the book over—a monolingual version begins from the other side.)
The novel’s main character, Richard Melville, feels scared, awkward, and excited as he conducts fieldwork for his anthropology dissertation on urban warfare in Medellín, Colombia. “He’s not Colombian, didn’t grow up in mean streets, and acquired what little experience he has in Berkeley and New York City,” and it’s a disagreement between subject and verb in an overheard bombast that raises his ire. But he is also fluent in Spanish, including being able to hold his own with rebel and drug informants, and he cannot resist his hotel bellhop’s offer to get him “¿una señorita? ¿Cocaína?, ¿marihuana?” He is “pleased” to be in Colombia’s second-largest city, “where vices would be indulged and fantasies realized on the cheap.” Richard acts like a deep-undercover cop on a TV procedural; from the get-go, he tries (often unsuccessfully) to balance his background, work, and pleasure, and there are moments of magical realism (he is in South America, after all) when Richard feels he’s flying. “It isn’t really flying, though, more like some suspended animation catapult . . . floating but not free, cursed with the knowledge that he’ll have to land, and, from the ground, wind himself up again.”
Hylton writes the narration in English; most of the dialogue is in Spanish, although there is a tiny amount of play with Spanglish, Colombian slang, and Cajun-English. There is never direct translation, though a patient reader will find contextual clues to some of what characters say in Spanish paragraphs or pages later in the English narration.
Vanishing Acts is worth the read for its unapologetic bilingualism alone, but its compelling story and characters can stand on their own. Richard is such a mess—an aware mess, but a mess nonetheless—and the book is an interesting sociopolitical thriller with a startling and unresolved conclusion, yet it also recounts what is everyday life for many people in Medellín. Though he’s talking about an experience much, much different from reading, Richard’s description could fit what it’s like to read this novel: “overrun by a pleasure that hurt. The best kind.”