Three protagonists are pitted against gravity for survival, whether literally or figuratively. All resist the downward pull of extinction, living on the fringes of society. The three intertwined tales are told from a personal perspective: Madison Kirby, a paranoid intellectual dying of AIDS; Roya, an Iranian immigrant recently brought to the United States; and Ric Cardinal, a former political activist who still labors in the service of the disenfranchised.
Roya has moved with her pre-adolescent daughter into Madison Kirby’s apartment building, and he is soon obsessed with the young mother, despite the differences in their ages. When we first encounter Madison Kirby, he is almost sympathetic, but his compulsion to secure Roya’s attentions soon spirals out of control. In Houston after a long journey from her homeland to Afghanistan and India, Roya is repulsed by Kirby’s attentions, wanting only a measure of security for herself and her daughter and an opportunity to make a living.
A former political activist who works with a neighborhood group, the People’s Aid Center, Ric Cardinal counsels youths in a local juvenile detention facility. Ric is equally drawn to Roya, the dusky beauty with the suffering eyes, but she has no time for men, struggling to make ends meet with dead-end jobs, her education virtually worthless in this new country.
Although Roya has endured imprisonment in Iran, the death of her husband at the hands of the Taliban and an endless journey through the war-torn Middle East of the late 1980s, her life in Texas is as threadbare as in the other countries where she sought asylum. Through the intercession of Ric Cardinal, Roya is put in contact with the People’s Aid Center; the Center offers her a scholarship, an opportunity to get her master’s degree. Finally Roya has tangible help toward a viable future where her accomplishments will not be wasted.
An older man who has had his fill of the world, Ric is partly a father-figure for a woman who has never known safety but also deeply empathetic and appreciative of Roya’s sensibilities and those of her daughter, his natural inclination in service of others: “Was there any cause more human than fighting for a better way of life on earth?”
Ric is, indeed, a like-minded soul, but he must fight his natural inclination to flee emotional commitment, escaping to South America to care for those in dire need. Eventually, Ric ceases to resist the inevitable, realizing “what she had gone through was one and the same with my own experience.”
Abject poverty introduces an element of unpredictability to the story, other forces at play in the slums of Houston. None of these characters will escape unscathed. Violence and bitter disappointment lurk just below the surface of a world with no room for the disadvantaged, an intricate tale of personal loss, disillusion and the hope of redemption, the characters finely wrought and infinitely sympathetic.