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The Hair of the God : VALENTINO’S HAIR, <i> By Yvonne V. Sapia (Fiction Collective Two/University of Colorado: $18.95, cloth; $8.95, paper; 166 pp.)</i>

<i> Brunet translated "Pubis Angelical," a novel by Manuel Puig (Aventura Books/Random House)</i>

Yvonne Sapia makes magic in her novelistic debut based on a single detail: that a Puerto Rican barber once cut the hair of screen idol Rudolf Valentino. The novel taps the silent-film actor’s charisma, throws in a dash of Puerto Rican brujeria (witchcraft), and weaves an imaginative tale set in a Puerto Rican ghetto in New York in the 1920s.

Facundo Nieves has an elegant barbershop in a Manhattan hotel. He is summoned to a guest suite and asked to cut Valentino’s hair. After he’s finished, he gathers the strands of hair from the floor and stores them in the secret compartment of a black leather box. “I thought about what I had in my possession,” Nieves says. “I had the hair of this god, the world’s greatest lover.”

After Valentino’s death a month later, Nieves takes the clippings to a bruja , a witch. She says the hair is the most powerful aphrodisiac she has encountered. It is the hair of “a trickster who could deceive with a glance or a kiss.” The hair could serve as a talisman or charm, she says.

A recipe for seduction is provided: The ashes of the hair should be mixed with cherry flower and root of bird of paradise in a strong alcoholic beverage. But for unrestrained passion at full potency, Nieves is told to add three drops of his own blood: “the blood of the seducer to be given to the seduced. One drop for each lover and one drop for the seed of love.”

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“It was (after Valentino died) I discovered the magical power of the hair,” says Nieves. “It was then when I used that power. I used it to seduce a woman I loved. The woman who didn’t love me.”

But the details of this encounter Nieves will carry with him almost untold to his dying day, and he’ll refuse to confess them to the priest who’s trying to give him his last rites. But he will confess them to his son, Lupe. Seventy pages make up the dramatic monologue as Facundo Nieves tells Lupe his life story.

The resolution of Nieves’ tale is long in coming and the suspense may frustrate the reader, but the satisfaction is sweet in the charged conclusion. Even then, however, Sapia expects the reader to suspend disbelief or trust in magic: Lupe hears his father speak after a stroke has silenced him:

“Lupe is sitting at Nieves’ bedside. The old man is still and quiet as death itself, and the boy listens to the silence or something else we cannot hear. . . . The boy nods every few seconds. His lips move as if he were praying or repeating words to himself, repeating phrases of comfort.”

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Nieves suggests to Lupe before his stroke that their familial intimacy will always enable the two to communicate: “Father and son will always be one. The blood is inseparable. The spirit is a single spirit shared by two.” But having the reader believe that the text is dictated by a spirit is stretching the point.

The remainder of the text, chapters that are individual short stories, establishes the Puerto Rican-immigrant setting. Lupe’s grandmother Sofia, who crowds her apartment with statues of saints, dabbles in witchcraft; Lupe’s older sister, who has married and moved to Ohio, is trying to deny that she’s Puerto Rican. This backdrop, while providing the context of the characters’ lives, is a patchwork quilt of sketches, some of which might be better suited to a short-story anthology.

But these criticisms are not meant to impugn the novel as a whole. Facundo Nieves’ story is compelling and suspenseful. Sapia is a poet who writes with care, and fills the story with an abundance of well-chosen details of Puerto Rican life.

In the book’s dedication, Sapia writes that her own father was the barber who actually cut Valentino’s hair and “bestowed upon his daughter a valuable legacy.” If this is indeed true, she has done that legacy proud.

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