I’ve been wanting for some time to start a series of posts on Matt de la Pena’s The Living, and in light of the increasing concern about ebola– specifically, the sluggish response of a wealthier nations to diseases afflicting poor people of color, not to mention the conspiracy theories already cropping up– the book should attract even more interest. With the sequel coming out on May 15th, we should have time to discuss the book fully before then. But, rather than start with the germ class warfare angle, I am going to start with a look at the possible significance of some of the names of the key characters. The title of Chapter 11 is a line the mysterious Shoeshine tells Shy on the Paradise ship, “Names have no meaning out here.” I am going to argue that they do.
Let’s start with the character that attracts most of Shy’s attention: Carmen. Interestingly, the name has two origins: Hebrew for “God’s Vineyard” and Latin for “Song” or “Charm.” Both are appropriate for the girl who captivates the protagonist at every turn, serves as the Paradise Cruise lines singer/karaoke mistress and splits a late-night bottle of wine with our hero (with predictable results) in the hall outside her cabin.
But few can think of a “Carmen,” especially a singing one, without thinking of the vivacious and sensual heroine of Bizet’s opera of the same name. Both Carmen’s manage to infatuate the young and inexperienced heroes, seemingly with little effort. But, while the unfortunate Don Jose’s self-centered obsession leads to his destruction and his Carmen’s murder, Shy’s crush on his Carmen leads to empathic development, as thoughts of her and his hope for her survival sustain him on the five-day lifeboat ordeal. Indeed, Carmen and Shy seemed to nurture each others’ spiritual growth. Once they were reunited on the island, Carmen informs Shy, “I thought of you every single minute. I even tried praying.” Whereas, prior to the shipwreck, Shy was adolescent enough to be emotionally overwhelmed by a sneak glance at the “hot chick” changing in her bathroom, by the end he is mature enough to let her lead him to the resort pool for a baptism-like bath and stand naked before her, with no apparent thought of the potential for a sexual encounter but instead focused on helping those around him, especially the sick, return home. The couple grow from two potential sides of a typical teenage love triangle to a spiritually united pair, capable of joining hands and literally taking a leap of faith to follow their savior. More about the savior later.
But, speaking of saviors…. If there is one clue even more obvious to the religious significance of a character than the initials “J.C.,” it has to be the name “Christian.” The Christian we meet on the Paradise cruise ship not only gives up his seat on the lifeboat for someone else (actually, for a pretty wretched sinner, to put it mildly–more about him later, too)but is also a physician. However, we are left to wonder if the word “Great” should be applied. Christian seems to have been at best duped by, at worst complacent with Greg and Connor, the most unconvincing scientists since Drs. Fine, Howard and Fine. It is not clear if he intentionally left the sick passengers to die in the isolated penthouse, but at the very least he was powerless to help them. The last we hear of Christian is Carmen vowing to make him explain all the lies they’ve been told, but we never hear the explanation. Apparently, we are supposed to believe Christian was gunned down with the rest of the castaways, though this is never actually confirmed. It will be interesting to see if this Christian is resurrected in The Hunting, but honestly, who needs him with Shoeshine around?
One character we can be reasonably certain is not going to turn up alive is Kevin, the Australian underwear model-turned-bartender who proved so competent in the crisis, but who apparently met a tragic end at sea. Kevin means both “handsome” and “kind;” both descriptions certainly fit. From the start of the book when he warns Shy about Bill-in-the-Black-Suit, to his and Shy’s rescue of the same villain from beneath the fallen ballroom light fixture, to his heroic efforts to save others on the doomed life raft, Kevin is certainly a man for whom “kindness” is an understatement. As Shy tells us, he was “the strongest and smartest of us all” and it is little wonder why Shy thinks it is unfair that Kevin died while he survived.
On to Distant Second Love Interest. Shy’s first response to Addison Miller was that even her name sounded stuck-up, and it certainly reeks of preppy princess-ness. So does her nickname, “Addie,” normally short for “Adeline,” which means “nobility.” But if you look up the derivation of “Addison” itself, you’ll find it simply means “Son of Adam.” This could either remind us of the Pevensie children of Narnia or, more likely, make us think of someone who is ordinarily human. Shy discovers Addie’s ordinary humanity on the lifeboat, when she surprises him by taking up the oar and splitting their fish in two. Shy muses, “It didn’t matter if you were in premier class or worked in housekeeping. Those were only costumes people wore.” Sadly, for now, Addie seems to have reverted to her Princess costume, as she has apparently deserted Shy to return to her corrupt father. But, as horrified as she seemed to be about the thought of her family’s wealth coming from insurance fraud (never mind genocide!), it remains possible she will have a change of heart in The Hunted and turn out to the the kind of person Shy could care for, if not as a lover, at least as a fellow human on a journey.
One other quick note about Addie and her best friend Cassandra, without whom she would not gone with her dad on the cruise. Before the storm hits, the two rich teens are pretty much interchangeable. Cassandra, of course, was the classical Greek prophetess that no one ever believed. On the lifeboat, Addie makes a series of insensitive remarks to Shy. She asks him (p. 176), “Doesn’t everyone like you grow up with a single mom?” Later, when they are feasting on their raw fish, she assumes Shy is not sophisticated enough to have ever eaten sushi (p. 204). We might be tempted to dismiss these comments as the bigoted snipes of a rich girl who doesn’t know better, but, in Shy’s case, both statements are absolutely true. Just a few pages later (p. 207), Addie makes another speculation: that the comb-over man’s rantings about betrayal had something to do with Lasotach exploiting poor people. She follows this immediately by a typical thoughtless “no offense” — which Shy no doubt appreciated as much as her crack about the sushi. Shy once again dismisses her, but that prophecy turns out to be the most correct of all. You have to wonder if Addie is channeling her BFF Cassie, who is undoubtedly sleeping with the fishes by then.
The other wealthy occupant of Shy’s lifeboat, Mr. Henry, has a name shrouded in tragic irony. He is a Texas oilman who has all money can buy, but for whom not even a 7-carat diamond can secure what he truly wants: the love of a wife. Henry means “ruler of the home” but, long before he succumbed to the shark bite, Mr. Henry realized he would never have a wife with whom he could share that home, because he was not the right person to bestow even the lavish ring. He personifies the words of I Corinthians 13: since he has not love, he is nothing. In the end, all the oilman can do is beg a final hug from Shy, secretly slip him the ring and urge him to “be the right person.”
Mr. Henry has a first name: William. In fact, he shares this name with two other characters: David Williamson, the suicidal comb-over man and Blacksuit Bill, (no last name given) the murderous Lasotech security man. Considering the relatively few characters of The Living, the repetition likely means one of three things: 1) Mr. de la Pena is very fond of the name William 2) Mr. de la Pena despises the name William, since all three men connected to that name die violent and gruesome deaths or 3) there is some link between the three. William is derived from “will” and “helmet” and is therefore translated as “resolute protector.” In the case of Mr. Henry, this can be seen in the way he, like Shy, seems to instinctively protect people. Before he is mortally wounded, he had the sense to use the flare gun to scare away the feeding-frenzied sharks, pack the life-saving water in the dry-pack, and rescue Addie from the deflating raft. After it is clear he is not going to survive, he resists drinking any more, urging Addie and Shy to save it for themselves. And, as previously mentioned, his last act is an effort to protect Shy from making the same mistakes regarding personal relationships that he had.
William Henry shares one trait with the none-too-beloved David Williamson; both end their own suffering by throwing themselves into the ocean after giving Shy an generous gift. But that is where their similarities end. Williamson, and the other Bill-Lasotech-loyalist are the worst type of “resolute protectors”– determined to protect themselves, and their business at all costs. Williamson kills himself to escape the wracking guilt over creating the deadly virus and to protect himself from the consequences of having the secret revealed. Bill sells his services to the highest bidder, claiming, “Mr. Miller pays me a lot of money for protection. As long as he’s alive, I will always protect his interests,” while coldly preparing to murder the young man who he had just publicly thanked for saving his life. It’s probably a good thing Bill got that seat on the lifeboat, because had he tumbled into the ocean he probably would have made some poor shark sick.
Apart from Shy, Carmen and Shoeshine, the only other Paradise employee we know to have survived the ordeal is Marcus, the hip-hop dancer and sometime radio tinkerer. We really don’t know much about him other than he turns up in the hotel and is just barely able to glean enough information from static-addled radio to let our heroes know that things are much worse on the mainland than they have been told. That, and Shy has to shove him off the cliff to get him to follow Shoeshine to the tattered sailboat. The name Marcus is of uncertain origin, with most sites listing it has coming from Mars and translating it “warlike;” however, the meaning of “hammer” also appears. I’ll admit, the pop culture junkie in me wonders if that is a hat-tip to hip-hop popularizer M. C. Hammer. But, considering Marcus is one of the few of Shy’s acquaintances that is still confirmed breathing by the end of the book, I am betting he and either his radio or contortion skills will come in handy for The Hunted.
Finally, we turn to the two key characters of the novel, the protagonist Shy and the mysterious benefactor Shoeshine. Neither ever has their real name revealed and even more interestingly, their nicknames are connected.
Shy isn’t shy, far from it. He enjoys the attention he gets from his occasional bouts of basketball prowess, he easily flashes the “Paradise Smile” for the wealthy passengers and their tips and certainly wears his heart on his sleeve as far as Carmen is concerned. We learn on the first few pages that his name was bestowed by his father, a “curious guy” whom Shy almost always calls his “old man.” On the lifeboat, Addie finally gets him to tell her (and us) the origin of his name. It turns out to arise from a crude World War II era phrase, when Shy’s father would accuse his toddler son of “not knowing s–t from Shinola.” Shinola, as must be explained to Addie, is a type of shoe polish, so old that had probably ceased to be popular before Shy’s father was born. Somehow, the nickname stuck and Shy became known by the degrading term, made all the worse because it came from his abusive white father. In a rare show of sensitivity, Addie declared the tale “the saddest story she’d ever heard” and once again, she is right. Although, from the veiled hints Shy drops, the nickname was probably one of the milder forms of abuse.
Fortunately for Shy, he encounters another “old man” on the ship, one that refers to himself simply as an “old man who shines shoes.” Shoeshine, who seems to combine the calm wisdom of Albus Dumbledore with the resourceful invincibility of Indiana Jones, manages to solve the mystery, recover the lost vaccine, repair one boat, booby-trap another and save Shy and Carmen without batting an eye. The evidence for Shoeshine as a Christ figure is overwhelming and will require its own post. For now, just consider how a shoeshiner takes something apparently filthy– the old expression uses the term politely translated as “dung” “filth” or “refuse” in Scripture–and makes it into something shiny and clean, all while washing the feet. As Shy’s nickname connects him to Shoeshine, he learns to trust the “old man” unconditionally, putting Shoeshine’s instructions even before his own burning desire to get on the ship and go home to his family.
It will be interesting to see if Shoeshine sticks around for the full sequel or if he, like so many other grey-bearded mentors, will have to pass beyond the veil in order for the young apprentice to fulfill the mission. But for now, Shoeshine is safely at the helm of the boat, with his omnipresent leather-bound book, and preparing for the next phase of the adventure while allowing Shy some time to rest. Shy is certain they will make it home and has decided, at present, not to worry about the trials that await him. Shy may have never gone to church with his grandmother, but he seems to intuitively understand Zachariah’s song of praise from Luke 1: 78-79. “Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Get some rest, mijo, because I get the feeling there are still a few more storms ahead.