Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (Review)

I’ve recently been looking for a way to break into the book review world. I believe it would be useful to keep a record of my reading and to feel as though I was participating in the larger literary discussion. When The Literary Bohemian said they were looking for reviewers I expressed interest and they invited me to send a sample review. However, they wanted something a little different. They wanted the writer to use the book as inspiration for a story, or to talk about the experience of reading the book, and not necessarily the book itself. I spent the morning working on a review that tried to do something like that with Down the Rabbit Hole only to decide that, for me, the book itself is more important than my reaction to it and this isn’t the sort of writing I personally want to be doing. So here’s my false attempt at this kind of review for a book a very highly recommend.

*

I read the dictionary as a kid. Did you? Tochtli reads the dictionary too. Let me introduce you. His name means ‘rabbit.’ That’s important, because the book he’s in is called Down the Rabbit Hole and it’s all about him. Tochtli lives with his father, Yolcaut, in a remote part of Mexico. He loves hats and has lots of different kinds, tri-corner, detective, safari, cowboy, and of course, sombrero. During the day he studies with his tutor and plays video games, at night he reads the dictionary. He likes samurais and hates pozole. He only knows thirteen or fourteen people. His birthday is coming up; he wants a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. He’s a lot like I was and maybe you too? He’s sensitive, obsessed with language, and eager to solve the mysteries of the adult world, except Tochtli is also the son of a Mexican drug lord known as “The King” and he’s very likely to get that pygmy hippopotamus.

Tochtli welds his vocabulary like a magnifying glass over a world containing corpse-eating tigers, mute servants, dismemberment, false passports, and, yes, Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses, in a process that clarifies yet distorts. Tochtli’s bad days aren’t bad, they’re devastating, or, more frequently, sordid. But the dictionary isn’t the only place he finds words. He gets plenty of motherfucker, faggot, and macho from his father.

The genius of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s slim, debut novel lies in its ability to create a world that is absolutely familiar and absolutely fantastical at once. Part Marquezian dictator, part Queen of Hearts, Yolcaut provides a wonderland for his son, but unlike Alice, who escapes and wakes from her dream, Tochtli’s strange world is real and inescapable. When the novel closes, and Tochtli disappears down his rabbit hole forever, the effect is, in a word, devastating.

Some people say I’m precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic, and devastating. There aren’t really that many people who say I’m precocious. The problem is I don’t know that many people. I know maybe thirteen or fourteen people, and four of them say I’m precocious. They say I look older. Or the other way around: that I’m too little to know words like that. Or back-to-front and the other way around, sometimes people think I’m a dwarf. But I don’t think I’m precocious. What happens is I have a trick, like magicians who pull rabbits out of hats, except I pull words out of the dictionary. Every night before I go to sleep I read the dictionary. My memory, which is really good, practically devastating, does the rest. Yolcaut doesn’t think I’m precocious either. He says I’m a genius, he tells me:

“Tochtli, you’re a genius, you little bastard.”

And he strokes my head with his fingers covered in gold and diamond rings.

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