Edgardo Vega Yunque; wrote of Puerto Rican life in NYC

By Bruce Weber
New York Times News Service / September 17, 2008
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NEW YORK - Edgardo Vega Yunque, whose novels and stories about life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan were picaresque, combustive, and sometimes flamboyantly comic expressions of the Puerto Rican experience in New York, died Aug. 26 in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. He was 72.

The cause was probably a blood clot, said his daughter, Alyson Vega. She said he had died in Lutheran Medical Center.

Mr. Vega Yunque, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico at the age of 13 and spent his teenage years in a Puerto Rican and Irish neighborhood in the Bronx, resisted characterization as a writer and as an individual. Angered by the expectation of Latin writers either to document ghetto life or to "dabble in magic realism," as he put it, he was known as a contentious man with a philosophy founded on the sanctity of self-expression, and he wrote with a voice that was lyrical, insistent, irrepressible, and often scathingly satiric.

In "The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into the Impenetrable Loisada Jungle," (Overlook Press, 2004), he cast a sardonic eye on the American response to the Sept. 11 attacks. His latest book, "Rachel Horowitz, Puerto Rican Sex Freak," is an earthy send-up of sexual politics. It was scheduled for publication this summer, but Overlook canceled it after a dispute with him.

"He was an iconoclast of the first order," said his agent, Tom Colchie. "Ed was always cantankerous about editing. He would say, 'I'm not going to be any publisher's fuzzy-wuzzy.' "

With a counterculturish perspective and a penchant for florid turns of phrase and hyperpunctuated sentences, he had a literary relative in Tom Robbins, though his work often had a political fierceness about it.

His best-known book, "No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain't Never Coming Home Again," is a sprawling tale of two families, one Puerto Rican and one Irish, and their intertwining over several generations.

The Vietnam War plays a central role in the novel, and so does American jazz, not only thematically - one character, a pianist, walks away from the chance to play with Miles Davis when he joins the Marines - but stylistically, as well, with narrative strains wandering improvisatorially away from the main tale before finding their way back. Julia Livshin, writing in The New York Times Book Review, said the novel "brings vividly to life, with its polyphony of voices, the simmering ethnic stew of the great American city."

Edgardo Alberto Vega Yunque was born in Ponce, P.R.. His father, a Baptist minister, moved the family to New York in 1949 when he took over a congregation in the South Bronx.

Mr. Vega Yunque was a radio operator in the Air Force. During one leave, his sister asked him to help clean out an estate in central New York. In the attic he found hundreds of paperback novels by Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, and others, and he began reading them voraciously. That spurred him to write novels.

In addition to his daughter, Alyson Vega, of Manhattan, Mr. Vega Yunque leaves a stepdaughter, the singer Suzanne Vega, also of Manhattan; a son, Matthew, of Amagansett, N.Y.; a brother, Jay Vega of Cape May, N.J.; a sister, Abigail McGlynn, of Queens County; and a granddaughter.

Vega's marriage to Pat Vega ended in divorce.

Her stepfather was passionate about knowledge and passed that zeal on, Suzanne Vega said. "But the thing that made him a great writer was the thing that also made him dangerous," she said. "Any boundary or restriction he took as a red flag."

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