Time and Punishment 

With his debut novel, Virginia's Jon Pineda returns to familiar emotional geography.

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It's the agony of writers to be at the mercy of the continual urge to revise, a form of shadow boxing that often disturbs any semblance of lasting satisfaction. Yet it's this unrest that fuels the art and another reason it continues to be made.

Author Jon Pineda may be troubled by this article about his fourth book and first novel, "Apology" (Milkweed Editions), because according to him, "the moment when someone pats me on the back, I want to tear it all apart and put it back together again." Only for Pineda, revision isn't simply a line edit of work in progress, it means starting again from scratch, trying new genres and modes in the process.

I knew Pineda in the late 1990s when we were graduate students in Virginia Commonwealth University's creative writing program. Since then, we haven't found much time to talk until we met at Fountain Bookstore on June 18 after a reading he'd given to a cozy crowd. I waited until the book signing and all the niceties were rendered, but I noticed how uncomfortable he was with that part.

There's a story about Faulkner walking off the train that returned him to Oxford, Miss., only to get down on his knees to scoop up two fistfuls of dirt. He knew that in the land itself he had the source for every story he would write. Likewise, it's impossible to consider the merit of Pineda's work without acknowledging the angel he wrestles: a car accident that left his sister paralyzed and led to complications that eventually took her life. Just as Faulkner tapped into the spirit of the region, Pineda's work moves toward a particular emotional geography; each of his previous publications represents a different track to the same city, a revision of the same central issues.

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"Apology" spends most of its energy on Exequiel, a poor Latino adrift in Norfolk and on the run from his past. When his young nephew partially causes an accident, flees the scene and leaves another playmate gravely injured in a ditch, it is Exequiel who discovers the paralyzed girl and anonymously reports the accident. Once entangled, he's arrested and brought to trial. But rather than vigorously defend himself against a crime he didn't commit, Exequiel accepts responsibility and sacrifices his freedom to protect his nephew and his brother's family.

Pineda uses character to pull the novel's weight because character is messy and more elliptical. "It is debilitating to think that writing has to fix things," he says. Rather than focusing on plot, he traces how the girl's accident affected the characters around her, allowing them to emerge on their own. What interests Pineda is "how characters can keep going, despite what happens to them."

The novel culminates dramatically after Exequiel is released from a lengthy prison term. Yet the reader is left with a conclusion that refuses to be summative and feels more authentic. Be assured that whatever laurels are bestowed for this book's achievement, they'll be uncomfortably worn by its author and, fortunately, send him running back to the drawing board. S

Jon Pineda recently joined the creative writing faculty at the University of Mary Washington. His memoir "Sleep in Me" was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. He's also the author of the poetry collections "The Translator's Diary" and "Birthmark." Information at jonpineda.com.

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