Few could have known that Nicholas Mainieri’s debut novel, The Infinite (2016), would become timelier and more socially resonant in the months since its publication. With the quick rise of “Trumpism” and the growing ideological tumult in our country, it has. This is unfortunate, but at least we have books like Mainieri’s at the ready to help us empathize with those bearing the brunt of recent threats—like the rumored border wall and the very real deportation roundups—which seem to have come straight from a Woody Guthrie song (that is to say that these roundups seem anachronistic, as if they belong in our dusty, forlorn past).
The Infinite follows two teenage lovers, the blue-collar New Orleans native Jonah McBee and the undocumented Latina Luz Hidalgo, as they navigate life and love in post-Katrina New Orleans. Jonah is a representative of the poor working class folks who seem to have little future in New Orleans or anywhere else—his deceased father’s defunct auto repair shop has been destroyed in Katrina, and there is little chance of ever getting it up and going again. And Luz is one of thousands of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America doing the hard work of putting New Orleans back together, only to be badly underpaid and constantly threatened by the possibility of deportation. Both are dreamers and romantics. The pair falls in love in spite of the social barriers between them, but it is these same social barriers that finally drive Luz’s father to send her back to Mexico when Luz becomes pregnant with Jonah’s child. Back in Mexico, Luz faces the random, bloody violence of Mexican drug cartels. Meanwhile, Jonah reconciles with a brother who can help him embark on a quest to track Luz to her grandmother’s house.
The novel’s narrative works, and it works well. Mainieri writes beautiful sentences without distracting the reader from what is actually happening in the sentences. For example, “Luz leaned through the bottom of the track. Her bronchi burned and her breath tasted like copper. Luz had always been a runner, of a kind. She ran from Las Monarchas. She ran to America, to San Antonio. She ran to New Orleans.” We find beauty in the rhythm of the paragraph. We get a sense of the physical sensations of Luz sprinting on a track, and because these sensations are paired with Luz’s personal history, we are also offered a glimpse—however incomplete the glimpse might be, such are the limits of empathy itself—of how exhausting is the plight of the placeless. There is no shortage of these moments in The Infinite, and what results is a coherent and beautiful double narrative: Mainieri serves up a love story between two people, but he also gives us a story about the ways xenophobia and regressive immigration policies affect thousands of people in the United States every day. It is a testament to his skill as a writer that he intertwines these narratives and avoids ever preaching. The Infinite is a deeply moral novel that does not, thank God, force-feed a moral to the reader.
The absence of a moral, or a lesson, in a work of fiction is right and a good thing—it is in fact part of what makes The Infinite a moral novel—but one weakness of the book we might consider is its lack of focus toward the end. Things unravel. Luz runs away (yet again) from Jonah and her grandmother’s house in the night. We leave her on the beach in Veracruz, where she is sprinting and feeling suddenly free. Jonah, heartbroken, returns to New Orleans and reopens his family’s auto repair shop. And Luz’s father, the closest thing to an antagonist in the novel, will almost certainly be deported. This might sound messy, and maybe it is messy, but is that not how things are bound to end up in an imperfect world? Ultimately, The Infinite is more concerned with how the social and geopolitical settings act upon its characters, and how it forces them to act in response. Mainieri accomplishes this all deftly, without making cardboard fools of his characters, and without being overly sentimental (even if there are moments of sentimentality). That’s what makes The Infinite such an impressive novel, not to mention such an impressive debut. This may be fiction, but it deals in the very real, the things that are happening right now to people in our communities. We need more fiction like this.
CHARLIE STERCHI lives in Gainesville, Florida, where he studies fiction at MFA@FLA, the writing program at the University of Florida.
The Infinite, by Nicholas Mainieri. Harper Perennial, 2016