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McIlvoy's novel "Hyssop" resounds with voices of New Mexico

A book signing for Kevin McIlvoy, author of the new novel "Hyssop," will take place at the New Mexico State University Bookstore from 1-3 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15.



Kevin McIlvoy, author of the new novel "Hyssop"

A character's compelling voice, McIlvoy says, inspired him to write the novel. Set in New Mexico, "Hyssop" is narrated by 87-year-old Red Greet, a natural storyteller.

McIlvoy, an English professor at New Mexico State University, readily admits that Red's Mesilla Valley is the one in southern New Mexico and that the fictional city of Las Almas is Las Cruces. Readers familiar with McIlvoy's novels "The Fifth Station" and "Little Peg" can once again expect to find Las Almas a compelling, contradictory, miraculous and sometimes harsh place to make a life, according to the author.

Red's first-person voice is shaped by the character's Irish-American and Mexican parentage, by his parents' shared Catholic faith and by the need to steal, repent and steal again, McIlvoy says.

Red's voice also reflects his sense of humor. "I have always liked a Bible kind of story that adds on and keeps adding. One beatitude, one blind man healed does not interest me," Red says. "I like a story with many plagues and punishments, with one begatting leading to another. With more than one miracle."

"Red's voice is full of emotional contradictions and personal history and the history of the Mesilla Valley," McIlvoy said. "He tells small stories that reflect his larger condition."

Poor in material possessions, as a child Red makes a shrine out of things he steals: a doghouse, a plum tree sapling, a 1924 Standard Diary. As an adult, he steals cash from his friend Eusebio Gruber, a rich landowner.

Red's confessor is his lifelong friend, the bishop Francisco Velasco, who isn't sure people should regret all the sinning they do. Together, Red and the bishop lead migrant workers to crash the Hatch Chile Festival, help themselves to festival food and wares with the vendors' blessing, and then take over Eusebio's hacienda.

When Red's wife Cecilia lies dying, it is Bishop Velasco who performs the last rites. He intones, "Thou shalt sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed," referring to the plant used in ancient purification ceremonies.

Witnessing this ritual, Red knows full well that the bishop and Cecilia have loved each other since their youth. At Red's side sits his wife's friend Recita Holguin, for whom desire burns in his heart. Red has courted Recita during Cecilia's long illness and believes the courtship to be a sin.

Throughout the novel, McIlvoy writes of complicated, long-standing friendships and desires that burn brighter as people age.

"I think there's something miraculously generous in people who love each other in a way that makes them aware of their sins and who find their way through the process of sinning to another kind of love," McIlvoy said.

At 45, the author can't know first-hand what it's like to be an octogenarian, but he says the novel is informed by his 16 years of working with elderly writers at Munson Senior Citizens Center in Las Cruces. McIlvoy teaches a weekly class at the center. With some of the writers he founded and edits the annual NMSU anthology "Serape," now in its 13th year of publication.

"These elder writers have watched me make mistakes as a teacher and mistakes as a writer, and I've tried to learn from them," he said. "They are patient with the processes people must go through for which there are no shortcuts.

"Time teaches you humility and humility teaches you awe," McIlvoy said. "To know awe as a storyteller is to have a great head start. If you're in awe, everything in the story will have urgency and energy."

Publisher's Weekly gave "Hyssop" a starred review -- the highest praise -- and described the novel as a "memorable, intelligently romantic story." The reviewer noted, "McIlvoy has beautifully rendered the soft, Spanish-inflected rhythms of English as it is spoken on the border."

Kirkus Reviews added this praise: "Charming, unpretentious, deep, poetic, life-filled. A joy."

Published by TriQuarterly Books, the novel sells for $24.95. Copies are available at the NMSU Bookstore. For information call (505) 646-1427.