By Daniel L. Muñoz
From the moment that Europeans sailed across the abysmal, uncharted waters of the Southern Atlantic to confront the unknown world that lay beyond, superstition and fear became part of their daily lives.
Their first encuentro (encounter) with the ancient people, who had inhabited the large continent for 50,000 years or more, was one of awe at the massive settlements which arose out of the steamy jungles. Large populations inhabited the continent from the frozen lands of the North to Lands End at the farthest Southern points. Land gave way to massive oceans that pounded the fragile earth into submission.
Wonderment gave way to superstition as they observed how the ancients provided cures to the populace. Knowledgeable in the ancient practice of using certain plants and herbs, the healers practiced a healing process that was part skill, part mystical and part faith. The ancient healers practiced the healing of broken bones, head injuries, and healed deep wounds that resulted from tribal wars. Those that practiced these cures were called "Curanderos". No village, town or complex was without their Curandero. To this day, the location of the nearest Curandero is still well known to the descendents of this ENCUENTRO.
Vernon Avila, a professor of Biology at San Diego State University (S.D.S.U.), is engaged in biological research and in training minority students to become Biomedical Researchers. He is well aware of the role of the Curanderos in our history and lives. Reaching back into his consciousness, Avila brings to his writing the knowledge of his roots and medical training. He draws from that reservoir of knowledge to create a highly intriguing novel: SMOKE SCREEN, A Novel of Medical Intrigue. In the process, he becomes one of the few Mexican American writers to move away from stereotypical presentations of the Latino i.e., as farm worker, activist, objects of poverty and oppressed individuals. Instead, he presents them as medical professionals who exercise their own initiative to achieve the goals they seek. Yet, perhaps because Vernon Avila is a cultural Latino, he can't resist portraying the male Latino as a macho individual.
Eloy Córdova Santiago, the main character in "SMOKE SCREEN," is a hologram of the author. Initially Avila draws on his own background and real life experience as a teacher and writer of biological textbooks for his biology students. As a Professor of Biology, Avila could not resist the temptation to lecture in his first work of fiction. As a result, the medical lexicon is heavily sprinkled throughout the text. The technical language may at first overwhelm the reader, unless, he is familiar with the language of the medical profession.
Vernon Avila's imagination at first fails to take off on the flight of fancy that is needed to transport the reader beyond his everyday existence. Eventually, Avila the teacher, fades from center stage and Avila, the fiction writer, emerges. At that moment, "SMOKE SCREEN" becomes a work of art and moves the reader into the fanciful life of Eloy Córdova Santiago, a mestizo, born in a poor village adjacent to Lake Maricaibo. Eloy is not your usual fisherman living off his daily catch from the lake. He is chosen by destiny to become the village Curandero and to cure the villagers using the ancient ways. Avila cleverly melds the ancient beliefs of the past into a search for a modern day cure for Huntington's disease "El Mal," that has been killing members of the village, including his own father, for generations.
Out of the sky, darkened by storm clouds, rain and lightening, a plane suddenly spins into the waters of the Lago. It is the answer that will help him fulfill his pledge to his dying father: to find the cure for EL MAL!
The reader will accept the illusion that Eloy Cordova Santiago, an unschooled villager, turns into a highly skilled biomedical researcher. One who will eventually be hired by the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C. He will become involved in finding the cure for Alz-heimer's and Huntington's disease. Eventually, he will become involved in exposing the tobacco industry's duplicity and the corruption of members of the U.S. Congress. Eloy will, eventually, help to save the President of the United States from being assassinated.
If fast moving fiction is not enough for you, the author mixes in the proper amounts of mayhem, murder, and steamy sexy subplots to maintain your interest. For the Latino reader, Avila brings a number of Latino characters into play such as Maria Rodriquez who partners with Eloy. She eventually becomes the Surgeon General of the United States. Such is the power of a good fiction writer - he can take you out of reality and transport you to a world of make believe. Vernon Avila is well on the way to becoming just that... A good science fiction writer with just enough salsa to make for interesting reading.