The Secret of Danny Santiago

Famous All Over Town

by Danny Santiago
Simon and Schuster, 285 pp., $14.95

Q. So my first question is, have you at any time been a member of the Communist Party?

A. I would like to answer that by saying that I am not a member of the Communist Party. However, as to the second part of your question I will stand on the fifth amendment and refuse to answer this question because I feel it could incriminate me.

Q. Well, actually I asked you only one question, whether you had ever been a member. You state you are not a member now?

A. Yes.

Q. When did you withdraw from the Communist Party?

A. I would have to decline, sir, on the same ground.

Testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Los
Angeles, California, September 19, 1951

The Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award is given every year by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters to one painter and to one “American work of fiction published during the preceding twelve months which, though not a commercial success, is a considerable literary achievement.” Over the years, this prize has been awarded to novels by, among others, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, and Diane Johnson.

The book chosen this year was Famous All Over Town, an ebulliently funny first novel by Danny Santiago about an indomitable young Chicano growing up in the East Los Angeles barrio. The citation for the Rosenthal Award, presented by John Kenneth Galbraith at the Academy and Institute’s annual ceremonial last May 16th, read:

Famous All Over Town adds luster to the enlarging literary genre of immigrant experience, of social, cultural and psychological threshold-crossing…. The durable young narrator spins across a multi-colored scene of crime, racial violence and extremes of dislocation, seeking and perhaps finding his own space. The exuberant mixes with the nerve-wracking; and throughout sly slippages of language enact a comedy on the theme of communication.

Danny Santiago did not show up at the ceremony to pick up the $5,000 check that came with his Rosenthal Award. His absence was in keeping with a long-established pattern of reclusiveness. There is no photograph of Danny Santiago on the dust jacket of Famous All Over Town. His agent and publisher have never laid eyes on him. Neither have they ever spoken to him on the telephone. Danny Santiago claims to have no telephone. His address is a post office box in Pacific Grove, California, a modest settlement on the Monterey peninsula. All communication with Danny Santiago goes through this Pacific Grove post office box. Danny Santiago refuses to be interviewed and therefore did no publicity on behalf of Famous All Over Town. It is as if Danny Santiago did not exist, and in a way he does not.

As it happens, I have known the author of Famous All Over Town for the past eighteen years. He was my landlord when my wife and I lived in Hollywood. Danny Santiago, strictly speaking, is not his name. He is not a …

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