Lee Cataluna is known for her voice, first heard live via television and radio and later through her newspaper column. But she also has an ear for local people’s voices, until now expressed in her plays and monologues, such as those collected in her first book “Folks You Meet at Longs.” This flair for channeling local life shines just as clearly in her first novel, “Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa,” yet this dark and absurd story often reads less like a novel and more as a collection of erratic first-person monologues by the same character—ex-con, addict and perpetually troubled Bobby Pacheco.
It’s easy to imagine the book’s early chapters as separate entities, and if spoken aloud, eliciting easy laughs as Bobby is let loose on Maui after spending 37 months in prison for a drug offense. For the first half of the book, the action stalls as Bobby relays in pitch-perfect pidgin his Sisyphean attempts to get his act together while squatting on his sister/cousin Doreen’s beat-up sofa. She and her kids treat him with pointed vitriol while his goals are continually thwarted by naps on the sofa, stealing, using and making bad choices.
Being anchored in Bobby’s point of view can at times feel oppressive—and in the more raunchy parts, make one pray for an escape hatch–but eventually his repetitive narrative becomes hypnotic. And luckily for the novel, a plot finally develops once Bobby leaves Doreen’s, lending the book cohesiveness and brisker pacing. But this doesn’t mean readers will like Bobby any more than Doreen does.
Readers must ultimately decide how to interpret Bobby, as well as his story and Cataluna’s book.
He is a changeable rogue who appears at different times sarcastic, naïve, incapacitated, savvy, and simply oblivious. Bobby believes he’s nice, but lacks empathy, pretending to listen to people’s problems only for selfish reward. He shows some awareness—“I was screwed up before I went inside, but it was just a random thing. Now I get all these permanent screwed-up habits all ingrained inside me.”—but more often acts ignorant. He claims Doreen’s abuse is proof of her love, but there’s little evidence in her behavior to support it: “Doreen does care. That’s why she made my ear bleed with the towel.”
His account of events trends hyperbolic, and all of his contradictions inject uncertainty into the narrative. Bobby is either an unreliable narrator or outright liar, but whether that’s Cataluna’s design is never transparent. The only hint provided lies in this exchange with Doreen: “‘Why you act stupid on purpose?’” asks Doreen. “‘Because it’s funny,’ I told her. … I never did think of stupid not being funny. I always thought was the same thing.”
Readers must ultimately decide how to interpret Bobby, as well as his story and Cataluna’s book. Whether seen as good-natured satire, compassionate depiction of the underbelly of local life, or something else entirely, “Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa” promises an unexpected and memorable roller-coaster ride on the back of a truly singular character. LL