Saturday, May 27, 2006

free-tailed tales

I just finished reading Every Night is Ladies’ Night by Michael Jaime-Becerra. Besides the irresistibility of the title, I was drawn to the book because it’s a collection of connected short stories set in LA. But whereas I wanted to write about the overwhelming vastness of Greater Los Angeles, Jaime-Becerra writes about the overwhelming smallness of El Monte.

His characters are mostly working class Latinos who dream of things like getting a new starter for their car or convincing their long-lost grandpa to attend their wedding or winning the lottery, because who doesn’t want to win the lottery? But to focus on the limits of his characters’ lives feels kind of condescending and, more than that, kind of beside the point, because the quirky and pungent details of the book seem to say, Life just is what it is. Sometimes you just need to beat up the kid who threw a lemon at you during band practice. Sometimes you just want to start your own airline or mobile electrical repair business.

I had a college professor who wouldn’t allow students to raise their hands and make statements that included the word “just” because he felt like it shut down critical thinking. Things aren’t just the way they are—there are numerous, complex, deeply troubling reasons behind everything. Which is true. People are “stuck” in El Monte or land in El Monte for reasons ranging from poverty to love affairs. But then what? Where do you go once you have your reasons?

You go to night school. You repaint your godmother’s dresser. You practice your best mariachi serenades in hopes of winning your first wife back.

The latter ambition belongs to Jose Luis, the protagonist of “Media Vuelta,” a decades-spanning tale that reads like one of the sad songs the aging musician plays in the beer gardens of 1940’s Chihuahua. The story, which is almost a novella, erupts in all its epic-ness out of a series of more contemporary stories that feel momentarily poignant but sometimes slight in retrospect.

Nevertheless, it’s one of those slight/poignant moments that is my favorite beyond any of the silver-threaded tragedy in “Media Vuelta”: In “Gina and Max,” Gina, a Social Distortion-loving, runaway punk chick, wonders why her boyfriend adopted a bat for her as a Christmas present. She wants to appreciate it, really she does, but…a bat?

Max explains, “‘It’s supposed to be a girl. A female. The lady I talked to said they’d make sure to give you a female…. Anyway, it’s a Mexican free-tailed bat…. She’s supposed to be like you,’ he said, ‘She’s Mexican and she’s Goth.’”

At which point I’m thinking, Marry this boy, Gina. Give him the two pairs of Dickies you bought him for Christmas and keep him forever. Every night is practical. Every night is tiring. Every night is magical. That’s just how it is.


ackleykid said...

This is great writing. I give it two smiles and keep it forever.

Cheryl said...

Thanks. Gotta exercise that book review muscle every once in a while.