Our newest contributor, Apollo Papafrangou, reviews ‘Citizen Cárdenas’ by Steve Cole, which explores a resurrection of a whole other kind.
By: Apollo Papafrangou
Meet Author Steve Cole
Author Steve Cole grew up in Roselle, NJ. He wrote for his high school newspaper, and had a column during his senior year. In college, he tried his hand at poetry.
“My submissions to a student poetry magazine must have been ‘sophmoric.’ Then, while doing community work in Chicago (70s-80s), I wrote for two publications, Keep Strong magazine, and its successor newspaper, All Chicago City News.”
Since marrying his Greek wife, Pat, Steve considers himself more than just a ‘Hellenophile’. In 2000, they traveled to Greece for the first time, with their son, Sam, in search of Pat’s father’s family.
“We knew the village by name and location, near Ancient Olympia, and with a little luck we found them. We’ve taken another 7 trips there, growing quite close to them.”
Since then, they’ve immersed themselves in Greek culture. In 2006 they began learning the modern Greek.
Pat grew up in Chicago, but attended Catholic school and church. When the family settled there, their “quest for all things Greek” led them to St. Basil Church in Chicago in 2010.
“Soon afterward, Pat converted. I grew up without any religious training in a secular Jewish family. But I was attracted to the church’s spirituality through the sights, fragrances, music of the ancient liturgy, and thoughtful sermons of Father Panteleimon Dalianis.”
The family became involved with the parish’s prison ministry, serving families of prisoners with gifts at Christmas. They also served the prisoners themselves through correspondence. In 2014, Steve became a catechumen, culminating in his baptism and a Greek Orthodox wedding for the couple, in 2015.
Steve added that that the philoxenia and the welcoming attitude of the people and the Church drew him to Greek culture.
Writing Citizen Cárdenas
Steve said he was inspired to write about a Greek family due to his experiences with his own Greek family and friends. He revealed that his protagonist is based on a real person.
“Citizen Cárdenas is based on a fictionalized version of a real relationship my wife Pat and I had with a man similar to Jesus ‘Gato’ Cárdenas. The real-life relationship lasted until our friend Enrique passed away just before Thanksgiving last year, much longer than the chronology of my novel. I originally wrote what became the Prologue of the book as a ‘thought’ experiment. Could I put myself into the mind and voice of our friend whose background was so different than ours? Over a year later in 2006 I read this piece to a writer’s group. They liked it, asked for more and eventually I developed an outline for the novel.”
About Citizen Cárdenas
In his novel Citizen Cárdenas, Steve explores the resurrection of Jesus—not Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus Cárdenas—a former Cuban refugee and current homeless citizen of Chicago. He has mistakenly been declared dead by Social Services after the death of his payee. This Jesus is “resurrected” via the philotimo of a middle-aged Greek-American couple, George and Alexia Demas, who take pity on the often drunken, yet jovial, vagrant. George agrees to become Jesus’ new payee, and so begins the saga of an often-tumultuous friendship told in epistolary episodes through the varying viewpoints of the book’s multi-ethnic cast. We hear from Jesus himself, his friends and family, as well as George and Alexia—everyone offering insight into their faith, or lack thereof, in Jesus, as he compels them to follow his plight, despite not knowing where the predicament will lead.
Jesus’ philosophy ultimately seems to be about love, whether it be his troublesome love of alcohol, loose women, tall tales, or his family.
It’s among the hallucination-heavy content of Jesus’ stories that the details of his life begin to get muddled. George and Alexia wonder if he truly is the refugee he claims to be, or was he ousted from Cuba? Does he really have a daughter? Is his family who he says they are?
We see that even Jesus’ relatives in Cuba are misled by his stretches of truth, made to believe, via his mail correspondence, that he is far better off than in reality—living the immigrant dream, big house and all, when in truth he’s without a home.
‘The Greek way’
George and Alexia still chose to help Jesus time and again, and through that choice the author explores the couple’s Greekness. They are compelled by a sense of hospitality, so inherent in the Greek experience, to assist this man need, even when their strength and faith wane in extending yet another olive branch.
When Jesus spends Thanksgiving with George and Alexia, George’s sister sums up their admirable generosity with this poignant statement:
“This is the Greek way. We offer friendship to strangers.”
In turn, Jesus comes to view George and Alexia as his “Greek family.”
Review of Citizen Cárdenas
With the narrative traversing time and point of view, as a reader it is occasionally difficult to keep track of the action, though Steve Cole expertly renders the unique voices of his characters so that we are ultimately not so concerned with the order of events, but rather swept up in the details of their happenings. With Jesus as the central character, it could be said that the supporting cast is made of his disciples, heeding his call as he expounds his eccentric philosophies on life.
In addition to the richness of the prose and character development, part of what makes this story so appealing is its timeliness. As our news headlines are rife with tales of Greek citizens taking in refugees despite the strain of Greece’s ongoing economic troubles, here we have a touching account, albeit fictionalized, of Greeks helping the less fortunate. The book ultimately serves as a reminder that those living among the margins of society have valuable tales to tell, should we only open ourselves and listen.
Connect with Steve Cole: website
By: Steve Cole
Publisher: North Loop Books
Apollo Papafrangou is an Oakland, CA native. He’s a poet, and the author of the novel Wings of Wax available now from Olive Leaf Editions.