Sergio de la Pava: A Naked Singularity
Despite the fact that it was first published in 2008, this book did get mentioned in a few end of the year reviews for 2012. This was because, when it was first published, it was self-published through XLibris. It gained a cult reputation through word of mouth and was published in 2012 by the University of Chicago Press. It has since garnered many favourable reviews though perhaps not as many as it should. Though not autobiographical, as de la Pava has made clear, there is no doubt that Casi, the hero/narrator, is based on de la Pava to some extent.
Casi is the son of Colombian immigrants. When he was born in New York, the hospital authorities came round to his mother and asked her is she had yet decided on a name for her son. Casi she replied, casi being the Spanish for almost. They took casi to be the name she had chosen for her son and so he was named on official documents. Casi is also the Italian for cases so it has even more sense in that context. The novel opens on his twenty-fourth birthday. He works as an attorney in the New York City public defender system. Casi is a very conscientious and hard-working, taking on many cases, perhaps more than he should, while some of his colleagues do very little. More importantly, he is very knowledgeable about the law and very concerned at doing well for his clients. Most of his clients share three things. They are guilty (though not necessarily guilty of what they have been charged with), they are not very bright and they are from minorities. During the course of the book we will follow Casi’s handling of several cases, involving drugs, petty theft and assault. At the start of the book, he has never lost a case, though, of course, many have been settled with plea bargains. What we see is that his clients do not behave very intelligently, for example, selling drugs to obvious undercover cops, but also they are often treated badly by the system, which is eager to punish them and get them out of the court system. Casi is polite and friendly but fights hard for his clients. Indeed, if the novel had purely been tales from the New York court system, it would still have been enjoyable. For example, early on, he is defending a man who broke into a van belonging to a company doing church restoration in order to steal the tools. The initial case seems as though he objects to everything the prosecuting counsel mentions, with each objection being overruled. Only later, do we learn that the judge has forbidden him from justifying his objections. He proceeds to give a reason for each objection and also explains the legal reason why the charge given is not applicable under New York law. Some people may find that sort of thing boring but de la Pava tells it such an intelligent but also humorous way that you cannot help but be drawn into it.
Though the public defender life is the main part of the book, there are other things going on as well. Casi does not have a girlfriend though he will have one fairly disastrous blind date during the book. He does have a good relationship with his mother (his father is dead), his sister, Alana, and half-sister, Marcela. He also has a good relationship with his landlord’s nephew, Alyona. Alyona is allowed to live in the flat for free by his uncle, if he acts as superintendent for the building. Unknown to his uncle, Alyona, allows two others, Angus and Louie, to live there rent-free, in return for paying all bills, all bills including digital cable, satellite programming, broadband internet, phone, food, toothpaste, electricity, water et cetera. Alyona and Angus never leave the flat and spend much of their life watching TV. They watch every episode of the The Honeymooners during the book. Discussions between Casi and the three housemates on television, particle physics, philosophy and life are also very well done. He is also interested in boxing. We follow the career of Wilfred Benitez throughout the book, and the story is very well told. Finally, as a committed lawyer, Casi and a group of lawyers work hard to help those on death row in Alabama. Casi becomes very much involved in the case of Jalen Kingg, a simple-minded man who has been sentenced to death for murder. Is this cruel and unusual punishment? The key case, Atkins vs. Virginia, is decided during the course of the book.
All this is highly enjoyable but it is not for a while that we get to the core of the book. Casi is inundated with work, dealing with a man who speaks in rhyming couplets, a Chinese man who does not speak a word of English and assorted other odd cases, when he is asked by a colleague to take on the case of Ramon de Leon. De Leon had been his client before and Casi had got him off. He has now been caught again, selling drugs to an undercover police officer, and he wants Casi to get him acquitted. This is obviously not going to happen, till he learns that de Leon is aware of a major drug deal that is about to happen and is prepared to tell the police about it in return for being released. Casi advises against this, as the police may trick him and the drug dealers will want revenge but, as de Leon stands to make some money out of the deal, he is determined to go ahead. Casi, almost despite himself, tells his friend and fellow attorney, Dane, and the book has changed from being an excellent book about a public defender and his life to being a first-class caper novel.
De la Pava tells his story wonderfully. It is full of wit, cleverness, erudition and surprises. Clearly he is a man who knows the New York legal system and its many failings but yet knows how to work within it and help his clients who, at least to some extent, he sees as the victims of Society, whether because of race or background or intelligence, and he is determined to do what he can to help them find their way round the system, even as he knows they will go off and do something stupid immediately on release. Above all, de la Pava knows how to write, how to tell a good story, how to keep his audience. It really deserves to be better-known and should have been up on every list as one of the best novels of the year.
First published 2008 by XLibris