Tag Archives: Stephen D. Gutierrez

24. The Mexican Man in His Back Yard, by Stephen D Gutierrez

10 May

Stephen D Gutierrez

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.

20. The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, by Rios De La Luz

5 May

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It sometimes happens that I get an indie-press book whose author seems personally appealing or whose cover is beautiful or whose press I like, and then I get into the book and a) hate it and b) feel guilty about writing about how much I hate it, since the author is probably a nice person and certainly this book was their dream and it’s such an obscure book anyway, why bother?

Well, The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, by Rios De La Luz, published by Ladybox press out of Portland, Oregon, is a classic example of that problem. I struggled through it. I thought it was actively awful. And despite that probably no one but its author cares about this book, I’m going to expound upon why.

So, it’s a book about race, about being a queer Latina, and the kind of myth-making and dreaming you need to do to make space for yourself if you are those things in an unfriendly world. That’s my best guess. The stories are about girls dating, grandmas, mean white boys, early girlfriends, cleaning houses for a living, sexual assault, with self-consicously lyrical flights like….

“During recess, I lugged the classroom’s bucket of crayons, color pencils and markers with me. The class played kickball and I sat under the shade of a palo verde tree because of asthma. I arranged all the greens together, blues and reds together…. Yellows owned the sun. Naranjas represented astronauts with Martian dust on their boots. Brown was my favorite. Brown represented the people I interacted with every single day.”

The  lyrical space-making mission isn’t a terrible idea, but its execution it struck me as so out of ideas. A crayon box? Really? The crayon box to talk about skin color? That is the biggest cliché in the history of writing about skin color. In a book that’s supposed to be lyrical and odd, a fucking crayon box?

None of the execution of these stories, from the good brown girls to the bad white boys brought any complexity beyond what you’d expect from campus politics. Brown girls might be more sympathetic than white boys. Many grandmas are lovely and deserve to have their struggles lionized. But these truths are not self-evident, both god and the devil are in the details, which De La Luz skips.

The story “Rosario,” is a two-page hash of bad things white boys have done to the narrator, one thing a sexual assault, another the annoying way they try to speak Spanish to pick her up, for example.  Those two things don’t seem the same to me, and erasing the differences between them obscure the possible stories therein, and the meaning of either anecdote. The point of the story is that the narrator is angry at white men and doesn’t forgive them for their crimes, but that’s not a story yet either. Lines like “Blatant sexualization of my brownness makes me gag,” are all tell, not show.

I’m going to write soon about The Mexican Man in His Back Yard, a collection of stories by the incredible Stephen D. Gutierrez on growing up poor and Mexican in Fresno and Los Angeles, a book with so much truth, passion, and pain that it makes the flaws of a book like De La Luz’s glare. Gutierrez’s stories are about race and class, but they’re about other things too: the history of illness in Gutierrez’s family; a local bully Gutierrez didn’t like. It is through talking about these other things—these characters’ real lives, because they are people first and race representatives second—that the insights about race bubble up. The cliche events in De La Luz’s book might be cliche because they’re true, but they’re so literal they allow no bubbling.

For example, in a wonderful story “Lucky Guys Forever,” Gutierrez writes about a local kid “a poor boy…. His name was Herrera. He was dark, with big, bulging frog eyes and a lambskin-lined jacket he wore all seasons of the year.” In Herrera’s one shining moment of social functioning he had a 10-speed bike early, when they were cool, and he loved it and was proud of it. That’s sad in a mostly-obvious way. I thought of the character Dukie from The Wire. But as the story goes on, it focuses not on the sad kid but on the narrator writing this kid’s story, and how much the narrator hated this kid. Gutierrez does some fancy meta-fictional footwork, circling through methods of telling that would allow his child self to beat this boy up—whom he had personal reasons to want to beat and also, we suspect, symbolic reasons. Symbolically perhaps he doesn’t want to be this sad kid with his perfect-bike sad moment. He doesn’t want to have to empathize. But eventually, he does. Here’s what he thinks:

Everything’s cool. I saw a little bit of myself in him. And I knew he needed only one thing, love. We had to help each other, the wounded. This came upon me in a flash, without premeditation. Later I would learn what it was called, an epiphany. And in that state, feeling much for him and the world, with myself included, I turned away for a second.”

The empathy is powerful because it was hard-won. It’s a brilliant story about rewriting stories. It’s a story about how much Gutierrez hates that sad-kid story, at the same time as he must admit that it’s related to his story, and find a positive, powerful way to incorporate it into his identity. The real killer in that paragraph is with myself included. At every turn, Gutierrez writes himself in, overwrites cliches about race. He’s brilliant.

Writing didactic stories De La Luz erases the details, turns everyone into caricatures, reveals nothing, includes neither herself nor the people she’s critiquing. The lyricism in this context feels like hiding from truth, or covering it. Don’t know how you really feel about your grandma? Invent her a time machine!  Sexually assaulted? Imagine throwing paint over yourself.

It’s so much easier than putting who you really are and how you really feel on the page.