{iexcl}CARAMBA!

A Tale Told in Turns of the Card

By Nina Marie Martinez. Knopf. 360 pp. $24.95 At first glance, it would be easy to mistake {iexcl}Caramba!, the debut novel by Nina Marie Martinez, as a product of McSweeney's, the mini-publishing empire founded by the writer and impresario Dave Eggers. With its glossy, retro cover, floral endpapers, maps, drawings, hand-scrawled letters, multicolored pages and other graphic flourishes, the novel has a striking design, imbued with the kinds of visual details that McSweeney's books are known for.

The busy jumble of the book's design reflects the picaresque narrative, which offers a Mexican game of chance as its structural conceit, six protagonists in search of fulfillment and an incongruous mix of highly stylized diction -- all of which gives the impression of a zaniness that seems strained. Even so, {iexcl}Caramba! is so endlessly inventive and full of such oddball humor that it remains compelling throughout.

Martinez lets her characters loose in Lava Landing, a fictional California town on the Mexican border, in which Spanish and English merge into Spanglish, and the boundaries between the fantastic and the real aren't entirely clear either.

The opening seems to set the stage for a "Thelma and Louise"-like adventure, when a young woman named Natalie gets a frantic call from her best friend, Consuelo, saying that she has just killed a man. Natalie takes off in her prized 1963 Cadillac El Dorado convertible to counsel Consuelo, but not without taking a moment to admire her car. "In that day and age as well as any other, a girl needed all the advantages she could get," Martinez writes, "and Natalie was happy to have a car that was on the one hand beautiful and elegant, and on the other, responsive and powerful -- characteristics she strived for in herself." Before heading to Consuelo's house, Natalie takes a pragmatic detour to the gas station, because "Common sense and the movies told her that when two girls go on the lam, a full tank of gas is an essential starting point."

As it turns out, Consuelo didn't exactly kill anyone, but rather inspired an accidental death -- "he got himself runned over because some pervert was busy checkin out my nalgas," she explains. "He was even usin the crosswalk." The crisis ends as quickly as it has begun: "May the good Lord rest that poor man's soul," says Natalie, "but it's Saturday night, and I was just wonderin, {iquest}what's the plan, chica?" The scene is typical in this episodic novel, in which characters veer from one bizarre melodrama to the next, yet seem fazed by none of them.

In addition to Natalie and Consuelo, known as Nat and Sway, the cast includes Javier, an evangelical Christian mariachi in love with a convicted drug dealer; Lulabell, his equally lovesick, witchcraft-dabbling mother, who "out of spite for her former Lord Jesus Christ," works only on the Sabbath; True-Dee, the frustrated transsexual owner of a local beauty salon; and Don Pancho, known as DP, Consuelo's dead (but very much present) father, who appears to his daughter again, imploring her to make a pilgrimage to his Mexican hometown. Lava Landing itself, with its dormant volcano, seems to be another central figure in the novel. (And it's a none-too-subtle metaphor for the cycles of eruption and release that the characters experience throughout.)

The scattered nature of the various plot lines clearly has to do with this being "a tale told in turns of the card," based on La Loteria, a traditional bingo-like game of chance. An image of a Loteria-style card featuring a pithy saying -- "Upon Inspecting the Garbage Cans, I Came Across a Treasure," "Shrimp Who Sleep Will Be Swept Away By the Current" -- introduces every chapter in the book and relates in some way to that section. Although this imaginative structure is appealing, the lack of cohesion is frustrating.

Yet {iexcl}Caramba! has no shortage of delightfully unexpected elements of humor; one two-page spread features "Lulabell's Guide to Mexico," a thematically charted map marked by regions like "Men Most Likely to be Homosexual" and "Land of Men Macho and Persistent." And the book is full of funny throwaway lines. Commenting on Javier's sudden religious conversion, Natalie says, "Just amazin what the alleged love of the Lord has done to that boy. He's a far cry from the kid that stuck his hand down my panties on the bus ride home." Beyond cleverness, though, such quirky elements don't add up to much; then again, superficiality is hardly the worst trait a novel could possess.

At times, {iexcl}Caramba! transcends kitschiness and absurdity to evoke something more authentic. Natalie and Consuelo's relationship, for instance, conveys genuine intimacy, particularly in their unique brand of shorthand-speak. Elsewhere, however, there isn't enough going for the characters for the reader to feel invested in them. Martinez describes Javier's impassioned nature as reaching into every aspect of his life, down to his favorite meal: "Javier was crazy about tacos. He loved them the way some men love their women: with a nice, hard, firm shell." When Martinez is funny, she is very, very funny. Her deadpan perspective on faith, romance and the uneasy bonds of family is truly wonderful. Had she infused {iexcl}Caramba! with more depth, this could have been a great novel instead of a merely clever one. *

Carmela Ciuraru is editor of the anthologies "First Loves" and "Poems for America." She lives in New York City.