By Francisco X. Stork
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010
344 pages, hardcover.
When Pancho arrives at St. Anthony’s Home, he knows his time there will be short: If his plans succeed, he’ll soon be arrested for the murder of his sister’s killer. But then he’s assigned to help D.Q., whose brain cancer has slowed neither his spirit nor his mouth. D.Q. tells Pancho all about his “Death Warrior’s Manifesto,” which will help him to live out his last days fully–ideally, he says, with the love of the beautiful Marisol. As Pancho tracks down his sister’s murderer, he finds himself falling under the influence of D.Q. and Marisol, who is everything D.Q. said she would be;
and he is inexorably drawn to a decision: to honor his sister and her death, or embrace the way of the Death Warrior and choose life.
Nuanced in its characters and surprising in its plot developments–both soulful and funny–Pancho & D.Q. is a “buddy novel” of the highest kind: the story of a friendship that helps two young men become all they can be. ~publisher’s comments.
“Characters that are just as fully formed and memorable as in Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World embody this openhearted, sapient novel about finding authentic faith and choosing higher love. […]Stork weaves racial and familial tension, tentative romances, and themes of responsibility and belief through the story, as the boys unite over the need to determine the course of their lives. Ages 14 — up.” Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“The balance of hope and acceptance is at the heart of what it means to be a Death Warrior” (83), it is also at the heart of the novel. The relationships between characters and their individual responses to what life gives them teeter between hope and acceptance. Some relationships and characters lean heavily to one side or the other, e.g. Pancho on the side of “acceptance” and Helen toward “hope.” The maintenance of relationships work toward balance as well, e.g. DQ “hoping” and Pancho “accepting” with Marisol in the middle.
Stork is gifted with the ability to create an emotional read while holding back for the objective rendering. The clockwork is wound and the outcome unsuspecting as we follow the characters into conflict. Messages find opportunity, but neither story nor “moral” appear completely in the control of the author. The characters are complicated and seem to generate the momentum of the novel.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is conscious of its promised time line; of its dust jacket whispers. I had a hard time with the pacing. Part of the difficulty was in the voice. The third person limited reflected the styling of the protagonist Pancho. This meant shorter sentences in modern language and while reading this novel I was reading Susanna Clarke’s short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, which implemented Old English and long and winding sentences. The Last Summer, felt almost abrupt at times. I think it is just as clean and crisp as Marcelo in the Real World is, and as conscientious of its protagonist, immersing the reader into the realist fiction of their world. What complicates The Last Summer is DQ and the Manifesto. Obviously, these two facets are important to the story. What else would draw out the singular focus and trajectory of Pancho? Where else might the messages and conflicts lie? The success of the complication of the two have much to do with how well the reader sinks into the relationship between Pancho and DQ. They are an amusing duo for the most part; but they aren’t quite a duo. Each have their issues and the novel has to take turns with their Plans. This plays out unevenly, at the very least unpredictably—too realist of fiction for the reader?
Enter Marisol, who is nauseatingly “dreamy”. Really, “Pancho, you must decide which Pancho you want to be!” [“DQ wants…” page 322 made me want to hurl.] The Gabriella character from High School Musical came to mind. As a feature of the plot, Marisol is ideal. She creates a not uncommon triangle. Two friends like the same girl: go. She likes one of the boys, but not the one who saw her first, what do you do as the boy who is liked? In many ways she seems so manufactured (a type) that it helps focus the story on the relationship between the boys.
A nice conversation amidst negotiating the hormones… “When you want someone, you don’t think straight and for sure take what the girl says to you and twist it up inside of you” (259). What is “love” and what is just sex? What is the difference between friendship and love? (282, 321). Stork doesn’t rob the story of romance, but he does interrogate fictionalized illusions. The landscape is raw and cannot afford the rose tinting. Who else felt DQ’s pain on page 271…
Pancho: “I think when you have the hots for someone, you end up fooling yourself into believing all kinds of things.” Stork returns to Real and Perceptual Real. And to the subject of Belief and Faith. To the connections between the physical and spiritual realities and their sometimes (con)fused states, their interdependency.
I mentioned in my post on Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, that his novel was perfect for those looking for an excellent story where the protagonist was not white, nor privileged. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors holds the same appeal. Pancho is brown-skinned, and yet mostly monoglot (his dad “wanted his kids to be Americans” 273. My maternal grandparents were the same when purposefully failing to teach their children German). His father was working class and raising them in a trailer. Rosa, the sister was retarded. Marisol isn’t white or privileged; she brings a brother who belongs to a gang and has been in prison. DQ is white but he facilitates the rejection of his mother’s world. His mother Helen’s world, though holding a great deal of power/prestige, is not wholly enviable.
Racism is a topic Stork does not avoid or treat peripherally. Stork doesn’t flinch from a story’s potential. Helen is priceless; offensive in her presumptions so casually delivered:
“You guys can watch the Spanish channels. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable with Juan?” (264).
“I thought you would surely be receptive to nontraditional kinds of healing. Your background, I thought, would have given you access to…natural medicines like herbs, for example. You must have heard of curanderos, right?” [Pancho] smiled at the Anglo way she pronounced the world “Cure-an-dero?” he asked, mimicking her pronunciation. He shook his head. Their medicine cabinet, in the tiny trailer bathroom, had Pepto-Bismol for the stomach, aspirin for the head, and hydrogen peroxide and Band-Aids for the rest of the body. That was it” (217).
What Stork does is question expectation and reveal what we know to be true of people: that we are all too terribly human to withstand such stringent Racial protocol as we’d like to otherwise manufacture.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors questions expected outcomes (even rational ones) and explores the value of perception. Stork creates marvelous characters, even the ghosts lift from the page.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors would pull DQ and Pancho out of a death spiral; challenging physical (and spiritual) inevitabilities. That balance again, of hope and acceptance. That realist portrait again, infused with perspective and hopefulness, humor and compassion.
Stork should be on everyone’s shelves, certainly on every young man’s shelf; and on every young woman’s, too—of every class and heritage.
I fell in love with Marcelo in the Real World (my post) and I was eager to read another of Francisco X. Stork’s work. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors was not as riveting or “evocative” for me, the story felt less woven, but it is an excellent follow and marks many of the things that make Stork an exciting author for YA.
This novel is also on the 2010 Concenter List.. (wow, am I behind on that goal.)