So, in the critical wasteland which is the American Book Review, a review in the “working class fiction” issue, written by , recently stood out. It was readable and coherent, an utter rarity in that publication. It recommended the work of a writer named Stephen D Gutierrez, and operating on the assumption that a man who can write might know another man who can write when he sees one, I obediently purchased the book the reviewer was recommending, The Mexican Man in His Backyard. The book turns out to be a quiet classic on poverty, race and storytelling. Also unique: The stories manage to be meta-fictional and really elegant without feeling commercially polished or insincere. It’s a very interesting book.
The stories are about Mexican-American life in Fresno and L.A., starting in the 1960s. The title story, subtitled “a fable” tells of a newcomer to a Mexican neighborhood in Fresno who is casually racist while thinking he’s multicultural. He wants to appropriate his neighbor (the titular Mexican man, hanging out in his backyard) while condescending to him. The story is complicated (first twist) by the fact that the narrator is also of Mexican descent, but barely speaks Spanish and rolls out racist chestnuts, like saying about his wife that “she’s as shy of Mexicans as they are around her.” So, Gutierrez seems to be critiquing not just the outsiders but the insiders who falsely venerate people they don’t essentially respect. It’s sharp, this story. It’s also structurally done very well, since it’s told by a first-person narrator we grow to mistrust. I love those reveals where the voice you think you trust starts sounding wonky, and such a device used on a story about the moral bankruptcy of our fashionable multiculturalism (the voice you think you trust), is a knockout punch. At the end of the story the narrator manages to briefly engage the Mexican Man, but the Mexican Man then goes back to his TV. The last line is “He didn’t care” (about the narrator). And we are glad.
Another story I loved in this collection was “The Spot”.
The Spot was on the roof of a “squat building with drab gray walls and dark windows at the very top. Headquarters for an electronics firm, it employed many people and saw them go home at night.” On it, “was a tightly wedged corner by a buzzing electrical storage shed that overlooked the city, a metal structure vibrating your back when you stood against it.”
It doesn’t sound like a great place, but it was special to the narrator, who explains:
“And I held my first ass there, cupping that handful of delicious flesh, and almost got a hickey. I pulled away from scared and laughed nervously about. I dug my face in the collar of my heart throb’s pea coat as I grabbed another handful of ass and told her, “Not now.”
We kissed for hours.
The moon was up.”
The sentiment is heart-felt, and that bit of nervous elision “I pulled away from scared and laughed nervously about” is lovely.
Later the girl goes home, and the narrator meets up with his friends. While they’re hanging out in the park, shooting the shit, they hear a noise. “Great echoes reverberated off the handball courts.” It’s ambiguous, but I think what’s happening is that the sounds are gunshots. Someone says, “Shut up, they’re dying” though it’s not clear who or what or what it means. The last paragraph reads:
“We argued the last stretch, straining to hear. We couldn’t catch it anymore, the faint echoes sounding in the night, the loud hollow booms diminishing to a muffled vibrato, an airy remnant.”
Again, I thought this story, which is very short, was just brilliant. The juxtaposition of this idyllic early sexuality and urban decay has a kind of primordial beauty, of love flowering even against the electrical storage shed between people still young enough to be hopeful. If the sound is gunshots, a reading is available that the kids do know that their world is dangerous—they recognize the gunshots better than the reader does—but the danger hasn’t caught up to them yet. If it’s thunder or something more innocuous….maybe I’m the asshole for assuming it’s gunshots. I don’t know.
Every story in this book is that good. Each one could make its own new and different blog post. And the strategy of the collection overal—it lives in a weird space between essay, fiction and autobiography—feels endlessly inventive.
I wrote more about Gutierrez here.