Only Pieces is a story of self-realization and longing, written in verse. Edgar’s parents are undocumented immigrants fighting poverty. His father’s unemployment becomes a source of simmering tension at home.
On top of that, his mother has reacted to her son’s coming out with untempered disdain. But when Edgar runs into his schoolmate Alex outside his home one night, he finds something hopeful to cling to.p
The story is intended for a younger audience, and as such thrives on that unique blend of purity and anticipation. Despite his innocence, though, Edgar comes across as a fully-fledged adolescent, revealing both a restless temperament and a muted longing for connection; both familial and romantic. Most notably, he cultivates his desires despite others’ disregard; or worse, disinterest.
The writing feeds this impression, maintaining a steady rhythm that twists and unbends the narrative at will. It braces the words with a sense of determination, allowing this stability to contrast against the havoc in Edgar’s life. There’s also something decidedly reminiscent of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe about Only Pieces, be it the artful minimalism or the charming protagonist.
Tello creates a playful layout for his tale, allowing the verses to roll and slip in tandem with Edgar’s emotions. The author also uses code-switching, in this case alternating between English and Spanish, to add a layer of musicality and authenticity to a world already on the edge of fiction and reality. This process is never alienating, though, as each new word is decoded in a seamless, natural fashion; usually through repetition.
The end result is exhilarating. Again, we see the splinter dividing Edgar’s inner world from his home life, the somberness of which naturally demands a sort of duality of being. What’s truly remarkable about Only Pieces is that every single character is fleshed-out and self-aware, and uses this corporeality to slip under the reader’s skin. This proves no small feat when we take into consideration the length of the work.
Edgar’s worries exceed those of a typical boy his age, as the thought of one day losing his parents to deportation becomes a nagging presence in his mind. His tenderness and romantic inclinations, which find refuge in his poetry, squirm under the weight of reality. Alex is similarly imbued with complexity.
His father’s exile from home, and the boy’s resulting need to look after his younger siblings while his mother crumbles, is an emotional obligation that far outweighs his years. If that weren’t enough, Edgar faces two-fold homophobia, at school and at home, which evolves into the main villain in Only Pieces. And yet, the work is suffused with a ruminative, hopeful ambiance.
It’s decidedly more about Edgar finding his emotional footing and identifying his needs than his hunt for approval. His best friend is equally compelled to prioritize self-worth over short-term gratification. This imprints a pleasantly mature message on the framework of the narrative.
Surprisingly, romance remains a smudge in the background throughout. That’s because the ambiguity that defines Edgar and Alex’s relationship cultivates an air of endless possibility. Alex is encouraged to keep stumbling down the untrodden cave of his being. In the end, his self-concept may or may not be linked to a sexual plane. That’s not for us — or Edgar — to determine.
Here, Tello subverts every known trope. He allows the density of his world to reflect the emotional opaqueness of friendship. Nothing is firmly defined, thereby freeing sentiment from compression. The author’s choice to go down the path of self-liberation, rather than heed the sharp itch of desire, is as tantalizing as it is wholly unexpected.
And so, when reduced to its bare bones, Only Pieces emerges as a token of compassion and self-respect; one forged in a world of few words, but countless sensations.
Publication date: June 1, 2022 (West 44 Books)