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When Charles Bowden, the prolific  investigative journalist and writer, died in his sleep on Saturday, Aug. 30, at the age of 69, it was an uncannily quiet end for a man who’d spent his life recording turmoil and violence along the Mexican-American border in prose that cut through the fog of political rhetoric to reach the harsh realities of the desert Southwest. Bowden forged his career primarily in Arizona. He died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in recent years.

To mark Bowden’s passing, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University has opened an archive of Bowden’s papers and published work for research. The collection stretches to 50 linear feet of boxes stuffed with correspondence, research materials, photographs and manuscripts that span Bowden’s career up to 2007.

Bowden’s life was dominated by the border. Over the course of more than 100 articles and 25 books, he dug deeply into topics as diverse as ecology, crime, drugs and social policy. His attention fell equally on people and the environment in which they live, and most of the books he published with University of Texas Press explored the interwoven fate of landscapes and their inhabitants. His first book with UT Press, Killing the Hidden Waters, focused on the dwindling water resources of the western states. Another, Inferno, explored the Sonoran Desert with photographs by Michael P. Berman. Exodus, a collaboration with photographer Julian Cardona, examined both migrants and the people who prey on them. In 2010 UT Press published The Charles Bowden Reader, a collection of essays and excerpts from his major books.

Bowden’s former editor at Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery, described him in a remembrance as a mix between Humphrey Bogart, Sam Elliott and True Detective’s Matthew McConaughey. Conversations with Bowden, she recalled, were like reading his writing: a steady stream of subjects, references and ideas. “That he died in his sleep,” she wrote in an obituary, “and not at the hands of the cartels, or the coyotes, or dirty cops on either side of the border, is something.”

The violence that Bowden witnessed as a reporter infected his work, and he spent a lot of time dissecting his own reactions to violence. In “The War Next Door” he described receiving a call from a friend in Juarez. “He says a man just put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him,” Bowden wrote. “He wants me to call his wife if he turns up dead and explain what happened. I hang up and go back to reading a book. That is what the numbness feels like.”

The situations Bowden documented were stark and often murderous, and he had no patience for people who proposed easy solutions to complex problems. He wrote to expose the truth as he saw it, however cruel or uncomfortable. “The world is rushing in,” he wrote in the same article, in reference to  climate change. “We can hardly alter that fact if we continue to believe in fantasies.”

Archival research at the Wittliff Collections is by appointment only,

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southamerica horizontal
New South Books

 

Lawd aw’mighty, it’s a relief to read a recently written novel set in New Orleans before Katrina. Not that there was ever anything innocent about the Big Easy, but something irreplaceable was lost when people died on the runway because the Secret Service grounded medevac flights for hours on end so President Bush could have the skies over the Crescent City to himself for a long-overdue P.R. flyover. So it is with fond nostalgia that we set the Wayback Machine to the year 2000 and visit the Faubourg Marigny with author Rod Davis’ protagonist Jack Prine, who makes his debut here in what appears to be the first book of a new and welcome detective series.

Prine is an interesting piece of work, even in the context of New Orleans, “where the nation’s leftovers tend to form up like lines of seaweed on the sand.” A veteran of the secret and often violent world of Army Intelligence in Cold War-era Korea, Prine finds himself making ends meet as an unofficial private investigator and freelance writer after a career in mainstream broadcast journalism ended with an episode of Felony Assault on an Editor—which, of course, is every reporter’s fantasy. Prine is not quite as hard-boiled as, say, Mike Hammer, but he’s definitely been on the griddle a few minutes past over-medium.

South, America
By Rod Davis
NewSouth Books
260 pages; $24.95

During an early morning stroll through the streets downriver of the French Quarter, Prine realizes that what at first appears to be a sleeping drunk on the sidewalk is, instead, the corpse of a young African-American homosexual whose skull has been caved in by blunt trauma. It’s the sort of thing that can complicate a morning walk, and to complicate things further, the corpse—one Young Henry, known more formally as Terrell Henry Meridian—has a sister named Elle, who herself adds a new definition to the word “complicated.” Also smart, lovely and troubled—but definitely more complicated than your average distressed damsel with unfinished business in the Delta. This is obviously an occasion requiring a knight in tarnished armor. Enter former Lieutenant Prine.

Thus begins a picaresque romp from New Orleans across the Delta and back again, through poverty and wealth and race and greed and betrayal and loyalty, echoing with Southern heritage and literature. Elle’s description of the Natchez Trace’s Witch Dance campground (“It isn’t even history. It’s barely even hearsay.”) is a far better Faulkner joke than I could come up with. But then I would rather read Joyce than Faulkner, and I’d prefer a recreational organ transplant to either. Still, the nod is one of the novel’s frequent subtle reminders that South, America is a bit more ambitious than your average detective thriller. I’m fairly sure there’s a reference to Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on page 85.

To fulfill the genre requirements, there is also a valuable stolen painting, a secret 8-figure inheritance from the white side of Elle and Young Henry’s family, an assortment of villians comprising blood relatives and mafiosos representing both Dixie and Jersey varieties, and a respectable level of violence and mayhem. No detective thriller is complete without the hero taking an ass-whuppin’ that leaves him pissing blood and vowing bloody retribution to follow. South, America is complete.

There is much here that brings to mind the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke, and Burke’s norteamericano version of magical realism. South, America‘s version involves Elle’s aunt in the Delta, who is schooled in the vodou tradition. Davis handles this sensitive (especially in the hands of a Caucasian scribe) subject respectfully and well, without attempting to plumb the topic’s depths as found in J.J. Phillips’ Mojo Hand and A.R. Flowers’ De Mojo Blues. This isn’t anthropology, after all, and when the forces of evil are arrayed against you, a little bit of chanting and the blood of a freshly killed pigeon is like chicken soup for a cold—it cain’t hoit.

Rod Davis

If there’s a gripe, it regards a trend in thriller writing that amplifies locale verisimilitude with regional food writing. Houston native John Lescroart excels at this, and no Burke book set in Louisiana is complete without a mouthwatering descriptions of etouffee and dirty rice. Davis, during long career in magazine journalism (including a spell as editor of The Texas Observer) once edited something called Cooking Light Magazine, and that experience seems to have seeped into his descriptions of cuisine in the land of the deliciously greasy spoon. One roadside stop includes a repast of Delta tamales, whose mysterious origins are a source of debate, but for the most part Prine and Elle pursue their mission with arterial plaque as a hazard avoided. I, personally, would rip my tongue out with rusty serving tongs before I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich at a ramshackle burger-and-blues joint in the Delta, but then this is only the start of what promises to be a fresh new series of thrillers. Perhaps a sequel will find Prine, .45 tucked beneath his shirt, at a café somewhere near Itta Bena savoring the legendary Floating Cheeseburger.

For readers’ sakes, if not for Prine’s, I sincerely hope those sequels are on the way.

What Is Alt Lit?

No Glykon
courtesy Trey Greer
Austin-based Internet writer No Glykon.

My first exposure to ‘“Alt Lit” was about a year ago. I was idly scrolling through my Tumblr feed when I stopped at a post, offering nothing but a link labeled make something beautiful before you are dead. Curious, I clicked the link and was delivered to a YouTube video of a gap-toothed young man running through a wet field, exuberantly extolling the beauties of life, pastiching (or parodying?) YouTube vlogs and slinging pop-culture references to Justin Bieber and Dog the Bounty Hunter. With the camera held precariously in one hand and trained tightly on himself—often at an uncomfortably intimate distance—he shouts, “Back in my grandfather’s day, they didn’t have YOLO. We have YOLO. We have to harness this GIFT!” YOLO, of course, is acronymized shorthand for You Only Live Once. The narrator’s name is Steve Roggenbuck, and the proclamations and exhortations that fill out the remainder of the 3:05 video are similarly affirming and equally absurd.

I felt strangely uplifted. Was this poetry? Over the next year I began to see glimpses of a similar style of expression in my social media feeds. They were barely distinguishable from the white noise of Web 2.0, but just slightly more meditated and self-consciously poetic.

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Image by Moon Temple, published at internetpoetry.tumblr.com/

I’d see a “share” of a surrealist image-poem in Impact font from a Facebook group called, “Pretending to ride a dog but not hurting it just pretending.” Someone would retweet, “hi i’m one of billions of creatures ingesting and excreting matter to perpetuate my existence on a sphere floating in space, how are you?” This Internet aesthetic seemed weird, but consistently bold. Further clicking revealed webbed connections between disparate sources. I felt as though I was seeing just the surface expressions of a sizable online community.

I’d discovered Alt Lit, but defining it proved more difficult. So I sat down with Austin-based Alt Lit author No Glykon (real name: Trey Greer) to find out more about the scene.

Waylon Cunningham: How would you explain Alt Lit to a 40-year-old from Cincinnati?

No Glykon: In probably the most simple terms, it’s Internet writing. It’s using the tools of the Internet and the figures of speech of the Internet to write. You know, like typing in all caps, typing in no caps, using misspelling and those types of figures of speech in your poetry and prose.

WC: There seems to be more to it than a merely casual copy-editing style, though.

NG: I often think that punk is analogous to Alt Lit. Poetry really never had its punk. There’s no one that ever really said, “It’s okay to write shit.” But for punk, it’s “learn three chords and you have a song.” I think Alt Lit is like that. It’s crude, it’s DIY. A bunch of people who were publishing poetry on the Internet just became friends. A lot of them are timid about even using the word Alt Lit to describe themselves, myself included. I don’t even know how big it is. Sometimes I’ll see an article in The Guardian or New York Times about some character in the scene, and I’ll be like, “Hmm, that’s weird. That guy.” In my perspective, it’s just people I’ve become friends with. And you know, I think it’s just not necessarily something solid that you can add a very strict definition to. And there’s not really somebody in the community who is putting definitions on things. There’s no [Andre] Breton who’s writing manifestos on Alt Lit. Or if there are, I don’t know who they are.

WC: What about Tao Lin?

NG: He definitely got a lot of people interested in using the language of the Internet. He just got published by Vintage, too, actually. But I think he’s sort of dissociated himself with a lot of those people. And he did that before a lot of people even described their work as Alt Lit. But it would be silly to deny Tao Lin being part of the community.

WC: Would you consider Alt Lit accessible to most people? Some have accused the scene of being opaque and ambiguously ironic.

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Image by Vincent Phillip, published at internetpoetry.tumblr.com/

NG: I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of these authors are shooting for honesty in a really confessional way. It’s accessible in that you don’t have to know anything about poetry to know what people are doing. It’s not accessible if you don’t know what the hashtag shit on Twitter or Tumblr is. If you have the mindset where you’re thinking that interfacing via social media is not a real way of interacting with people, if you’re that type of Luddite, then you’re gonna struggle to understand what is even being said. But I think that if you’re open and excited about the Internet, and it blows your mind all the time, then you’ll probably understand. I don’t think that the message or the themes that are being used are inaccessible. I think that the writing is actually very accessible.

WC: Your own writings do seem a little strange, though, don’t you think?

NG: I think my stuff in general is little vignettes. Not necessarily playing into a coherent story. But I wouldn’t necessarily say my stuff is indicative of the greater Alt Lit culture.

WC: What would you say is indicative of greater Alt Lit culture?

NG: I would say there are two main channels. The first type are people that are riffing off [Charles] Bukowski’s confessional-style writing. They tend to emphasize the more grotesque aspects of being a person. Lots of talking about being a piece of shit. Lots of self-loathing. The other type are people that are trying to be almost motivational speakers. Just trying to get people pumped about life. Like Steve Roggenbuck.

WC: Would you say that Texas has a large Alt Lit presence?

NG: Much more than most states, it does. I think the main saturation is in Chicago. But Alt Lit Gossip is probably the epicenter of the scene. That’s where the term is used the most. The curator of that group, Chris Dankland, lives in Houston.

WC: Has Texas had any effect on your writing?

NG: I think it’s difficult not to write from your own experiences. I live in Austin, and when I write I definitely incorporate what I hear people say and stories about my friends, stuff like that. But I think that one of the core things about Alt Lit is that it exists primarily on the Internet. It’s an Internet culture. And that’s really important to the community at large.

WC: So this is a movement not really tied to geography?

NG: Right. For example, there are plenty of people whose only means of putting writing in the world is via email. Like Peter BD, his whole thing is he sends an email to you where he writes a story about you with a bunch of weird made-up shit. And there are plenty of people who primarily write through Facebook and Tumblr.

WC: Do you think the independent publishing nature of Alt Lit gives it any advantage?

NG: It just depends on what your end goal is. If your goal is to communicate with other people, then you totally have an advantage because you can get your material out there faster and develop communications faster. If your goal is to become the poet laureate of the United States, then you’re fucked.

No Glykon recently published the sixth issue of his online Alt Lit zine, Reality Hands.

TomlinsonHillUnless you’ve been living under a rock—and perhaps even if you have—you’ve probabably heard the news that former Texas Observer managing editor Chris Tomlinson (now a columnist with the Houston Chronicle) has a new book, which officially published yesterday.

Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families Who Share the Tomlinson Name—One White, One Black (St. Martin’s Press) has been getting warm notices from Texas Monthly to NPR, and while the Observer‘s own review won’t be available for another week or so (check the forthcoming August issue), we wanted to jump the gun and let Observer friends and family know that Chris has some statewide book-launch events coming up.

On Wednesday, July 23, he’ll introduce the book at BookPeople in Austin. On Thursday, July 24, he’ll be signing books at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio; on Tuesday, July 29, he’ll sign books at the Lincoln Park Barnes & Noble in Dallas; and on Friday, July 30, he’ll be signing at Brazos Bookstore in Houston.

If you’re not able to make any of those (or even if you are), you can check out the book’s trailer here:

Lacy M. Johnson
Lacy M. Johnson

Lacy M. Johnson reads at Brazos Bookstore in Houston on Thursday, July 22, at 7 p.m.; at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio on Sunday, July 27, at 3 p.m.; and at BookPeople in Austin on Tuesday, July 29, at 7 p.m.

How does one tell an unspeakable story? This question hovers like fog over Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side, a memoir about the author’s imprisonment and rape, in 2000, at the hands of a man she had once dated. Since then, Johnson has found happiness both professionally (she received her Ph.D. from the University of Houston and now works as director of academic initiatives at UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts) and personally (as a wife and mother), yet the crime—whose perpetrator escaped the American justice system by moving to Venezuela—has continued to haunt her. The Other Side is a book about an abusive relationship leading to a violent crime, yes, but more than that it’s about the difficulty and necessity of telling such a story instead of allowing others to tell it for you.

The Other Side
Tin House Books
The Other Side
By Lacy M. Johnson
Tin House Books
232 pages; $15.95

Johnson shows less interest in the awful facts at her memoir’s center than in the way she experienced those facts. She rarely addresses the rape directly, circling it at a distance, oftentimes even standing outside of her story to focus on objective-seeming materials—police reports, photographs, newspaper articles—only to then question their objectivity by delving into her own memories. (“It’s possible I’m not remembering right,” Johnson tells her therapist, who responds: “Is there any other way of remembering?”) This tension between fact and perception forms the book’s intellectual backbone, and though The Other Side begins as a true-crime story, it flowers into an investigation of memory.

Despite the subject matter, Johnson never wallows in bleakness. Her writing style is engaging and redemptive, a trick accomplished partly by virtue of Johnson’s voice—clear and direct, but with a breezy archness that belies her story’s dark core. Upon seeing her possessions in a Ziploc bag marked EVIDENCE, Johnson writes: “Nice to meet you, Evidence.” Elsewhere she exhibits both the touch of a poet (blood in her mouth becomes “the taste of a penny stolen from the kitchen jar”) and a novelist’s eye for character-fleshing detail (her mother addresses crises with Cool Ranch Doritos). As for the crime itself, Johnson breaks it up over a couple of different chapters, never asking the reader to experience the horror in a sustained way. The Other Side moves lithely from scene to scene, shuffling the chronology so readers remain aware that no matter how terrible events may seem, a happier life for Johnson lies ahead.

All of this adds up to a great book, one that isn’t ultimately about violence, but about a woman taking control of her own story after years of looking at it as if it were a reflection, something familiar yet distant, something she never quite accepted as her own.

“How is it possible,” Johnson asks, “to reclaim the body when it’s visible only in a mirror?” The Other Side is Johnson’s attempt to shatter that mirror—to reclaim a seemingly unspeakable story and, in so doing, to bring it to an end.

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santiagotafolla
Santiago Tafolla

Open range cattle rancher, frontier law enforcer, illegal hide trader, Methodist circuit preacher and veteran of both the Texas-Indian Wars and the Civil War – Santiago Tafolla’s life was a wild journey spanning the quintessentially Texan iconography of the 19th century. The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University has recently acquired his hand-written memoirs, along with an assortment of related maps and photographs. The documents offer a rare glimpse into the Tejano experience of 19th century Texas, and will soon be available online.

“We don’t have a lot of Tejano materials,” says David Coleman,  director of the Wittliff Collections. “Across the Southwest, the Mexican-American experience is significant. In Texas, though, [documents] tends to focus on the Texans. We hope that [the Tafolla papers] will serve as a real foundation piece to build on, representing a Tejano or Mexican-American experience. ”

Tafolla was born in 1837 in Santa Fe, which was then Mexican territory. His parents died when he was young, and in a Dickensian turn of events he was sent to live with a cruel older brother who treated him more or less as a  mule. In 1848—the year of the U.S. takeover of Santa Fe—11-year-old Tafolla and a cousin ran away. They nearly starved to death in the mountains until a passing American caravan rescued them. Thus began Tafolla’s travels across the United States, during which he witnessed “a wedding reception at Mormon Town, Texas; skirmishes between rowdy recruits from St. Louis and a Black crew on a Mississippi steamboat; and the Sunday afternoon going-ons at the residences of foreign ministers in Washington, D.C.,” according to the introduction to the published memoirs. His brief stint in the Confederate army was cut short by the threats of his Anglo comrades to lynch the “greasers.” He and a few other Tejanos deserted their regiment and escaped to Mexico.

“This is the only known written account of a Mexican-American who served in the Civil War, and that’s dramatically significant,” Coleman says. After the war, Tafolla returned to Central Texas and traded livestock in the oft-romanticized early days of the Texas cattle industry. The journal ends with Tafolla’s swearing-in as justice of the peace in Bandera County in 1876—the year of the last great Comanche raid in the region. Tafolla died before he could complete the memoirs, which unfortunately leaves out his religious awakening and the subsequent 35 years he spent as a Methodist circuit preacher.

The manuscript was passed down through Tafolla’s descendants as a family heirloom. His grandson attempted to have a transcription published in the 1960s, but faced a lack of interest in early Mexican-American literature. It was finally published in 2009 as A Life Crossing Borders: Memoir of a Mexican-American Civil War Soldier, by Houston’s Arte Publico Press, in an edition edited by Santiago’s great-grandchildren, including Carmen Tafolla, the current poet laureate of San Antonio.

Wittliff archivists plan to digitize the manuscript for online access within the year. Because the pages are so fragile, the public will have limited access to the original documents.

photograph by Fredrik Nilsen
"100 North Nevill Street"
by Zoe Leonard
installation view, detail

 

Zoe Leonard, a New York City-based photographer and sculptor, is turning Marfa inside out and upside down as part of a Chinati Foundation special exhibition.

The work is a large-scale camera obscura installation. A camera obscura is an optical device, predating photography, that uses an aperture and a darkened chamber to convert natural light into a two-dimensional image, which is typically projected onto a flat plane. In the case of “100 North Nevill Street” (the installation’s title is borrowed from the hosting Ice Plant gallery’s address), a 6-inch lens installed in one of the building’s walls casts an inverse image of the exterior landscape across the interior of the warehouse-like space. Because the image is a real-time projection of the external environment, ever-changing patterns of light and shadow, not to mention clouds and cars, keep the distorted image in constant motion.

“I hate to oversimplify what is a marvelous and complex artistic experience,” says Rob Weiner, associate director of the Chinati Foundation, “but you walk into the room, which has become a kind of camera, and you see an upside down image of the outside that fills the walls, floor and ceiling.

“Everybody has a completely different experience,” Weiner says. “You start looking at something that’s familiar in a very particular way. It makes it strange for a moment, even though it’s completely accurate. You’re looking at it in a different perspective. Like all art, it’s experience.”

Leonard’s West Texas presentation is the final installment of a worldwide series. In New York City, the artist received widespread acclaim for “945 Madison Avenue” at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Leonard had previously exhibited camera obscura installations in Venice, Italy (2012), London (“Observation Point,” 2012), and Germany (“Available Light,” 2011). The current Marfa installation is the only location projecting primarily natural scenery.

The Chinati Foundation has an evolving relationship with Leonard, who first visited Marfa with a friend several years ago. Since then, Leonard has returned to Chinati to exhibit her photography, and in 2010 performed a spoken word piece called “This Is Where I Was” based on more than 1,000 collected postcards of Niagara Falls.

The Ice Plant is located on East Oak Street between North Nevill and Salarosa streets in Marfa. “100 North Nevill Street” is free and open to the public from noon to 2 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, until the end of the year.

2014 Texas Observer Short Story Contest guest judge Elizabeth McCracken.
2014 Texas Observer Short Story Contest Guest Judge Elizabeth McCracken.

The rules for the annual Texas Observer Short Story Contest contain a clause that reads “No restriction on genre;  entries with a Texas setting or theme are encouraged.” Writers have taken this encouragement to heart. The majority of stories entered in our first three years of contests have boasted Texas settings, and all three winners have been steeped in Texana: Brian Allen Carr’s cowboy myth “The Last Henley,” set in Corpus Christi; the rural Texas of Larina Lavergne’s “Water Birth”; and Ashley Hope Perez’s 2013 winner “3:17,” which takes place in the aftermath of the 1937 New London school explosion.

But each year’s contest has also drawn stories from all over the globe, many featuring exotic (to Texans) settings such as New Zealand, Turkey, Egypt and South Korea. This year we expect more of the same: an inpouring of words from all corners of the world, some offering insight into rarely seen locales, some shedding new light on familiar places, and all of them telling new stories in new ways, old stories in new ways, or new stories in old ways. Hell, even an old story told in an old way can offer a fresh perspective.

This year’s guest judge, Elizabeth McCracken, is no stranger to the short story form, having earlier this year published a story collection, Thunderstruck, to great acclaim. When she’s not writing her own work, she serves as the Fiction Chair at the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers, mentoring and teaching tomorrow’s acclaimed storytellers.

Asked what she looks for in a good story, McCracken borrows these words from William Boyd: “The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them—a complexity of afterthought—that cannot be pinned down or analyzed.”

“That’s what I want in any short story,” McCracken says, “that complexity of afterthought. When I finish a short story I want to feel as though my brain has been struck like a gong.”

So if you’re cooking up (or sitting on) a story you think may be up that alley, give us a shot. As always, the winner of the Texas Observer Short Story Contest wins $1,000, and will have his or her story published in our annual Books Issue, due out in October. The winning piece will also be published online, as will four finalists. Additionally, 15-25 honorable mentions will be identified by name (which makes great fodder for submission letters).

Go ahead, writers. Strike our brains like a gong.

CLICK HERE for all the relevant information, and to SUBMIT.

Cristina
Cristina Henríquez

 

Cristina Henríquez will read from The Book of Unknown Americans on June 18 at BookPeople in Austin; June 19 at Brazos Bookstore in Houston; and June 20 at the Dallas Museum of Art.

 

In a 2009 TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie noted that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In Texas, at least, Mexican immigration has largely defined the Latino narrative, but Cristina Henríquez’s big-hearted second novel challenges this “single story” by exploring a wide range of Latino experiences.

Henríquez is specially qualified to weigh in on the particular dilemmas of migration, cultural identity and displacement. Born and raised in Delaware and now living in Chicago, she’s resided in Florida, Virginia, Indiana and Iowa. She spent summers in Panama, where her father was born, and lived in Texas long enough to be chosen as the state’s sole essayist for the 2008 anthology State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Despite her stateside bona fides, the “Americans” of her novel’s title refers to both U.S. residents and individuals from the many countries of the Américas.

The Book of Unknown Americans opens with the Rivera family’s arrival to a modest Delaware apartment building after days of travel from their hometown in central Mexico. Desperate to help their beautiful teenaged daughter, Maribel, recover from a near-fatal head injury, Arturo and Alma Rivera have come to the U.S. so that Maribel can receive special education services not available in Mexico. Why Delaware, not Texas or California? A mushroom farm in nearby Pennsylvania is the one business that will sponsor Arturo’s work visa. (Like most of the immigrants featured in the novel, the Riveras have come to the U.S. legally.)

The Book of Unknown Americans By Cristina Henríquez Knopf $24.95; 294 pages
The Book of Unknown Americans
By Cristina Henríquez
Knopf
$24.95; 294 pages

Alma Rivera narrates roughly half of the novel, quietly assessing the precariousness of her family’s new life and communicating the particular flavor of her own homesickness, taking us back to the happy life the Riveras once enjoyed, before Maribel’s accident, in their hometown of Pátzcuaro. Language barriers make phone calls to Maribel’s school an ordeal, the taste of foods from home deepens Alma’s sadness, and the hard letters of English seem like miniature walls dividing words and worlds.

Among the neighbors who help the Riveras adjust to life in Delaware are the Toros, a Panamanian-American family who live across the hall. Fifteen-year-old Mayor Toro is the novel’s secondary narrator, offering an insider’s view of the dynamics between the building’s residents and spot-on depictions of what it’s like to be the clumsy younger brother of a soccer star in a family where being “Latino and male and not a cripple” means he is expected to excel at the game.

Upon the Riveras’ arrival in Delaware, Maribel puts her clothes on backwards, forgets simple conversations held moments earlier, and struggles to wash her own hair. With time, however, her condition begins to improve. The teachers at her special school help, but readers may be inclined to give Mayor Toro more of the credit. Unlike Maribel’s parents, Mayor does not compare her to a “before” version of herself. To him, Maribel is simply Maribel: beautiful, fascinating, and—astonishingly—interested in him. The scenes between Mayor and Maribel are among the loveliest in the novel, with Henríquez perfectly coupling the awkwardness of their exchanges with their urgent quest for mutual understanding, that most basic and elusive of human sustenance. Ultimately, Mayor’s misguided efforts to cultivate their romance open the way to unwitting tragedy for both families.

If The Book of Unknown Americans has a flaw, it is that Henríquez, in her effort to overturn the “single story” of U.S. Latinos, sometimes verges on didacticism. When a character comments, “It’s like how everyone thinks I like tacos. We don’t even eat tacos in Panamá,” another Panamanian chimes in: “That’s right. We eat chicken and rice.”

“If people want to tell me to go home,” another character says, “I just turn to them and smile politely and say, ‘I’m already there.’”

There is a studied diversity to the handful of interspersed monologues from other Latino residents in the apartment building; characters including a busybody, a dancer, a photographer, a line cook with an anger-management problem and a poetry-quoting Vietnam vet hail from Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Paraguay and Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, their passages become monochromatic and rarely strike notes not already sounded more clearly in the Rivera/Toro narrative. Though a number of tertiary characters have monologues, Maribel does not. Her exclusion from the “unknown” Americans who get to speak their piece is hard to accept, mostly because it would have been a pleasure to see what Henríquez could do with Maribel’s point of view.

Henríquez is at her best when she trusts her own narrative powers, as when she portrays a wife’s grief as she browses through her deceased husband’s belongings, sucking on the bristles of his toothbrush and plucking his used toothpicks from the trash. Then she finds his hat: “I put it over my face like a mask, feeling the sweatband, soft as felt, against my cheeks. I took a deep breath. And there he was. The smell of him. I closed my eyes and felt myself sway. There he was.”

Passages like this reward a bit of patience, and The Book of Unknown Americans is a welcome contribution to a broadening literary conversation about Latino experience—a contribution that features immigrants from all across the Américas, and all walks of life. As Henríquez shows, theirs is a story composed of many stories.

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Most mornings I join tens of thousands of fellow commuters who live south of Houston for our daily slog along I-45. There are few sources of frustration greater than this dense traffic corridor, but thanks to the absence of zoning laws, there are also few resources better for slow reading. Rather than seeing this slice of highway as a valley of death, why not consider it as a valley of texts? Flourishing along the banks of this great, concrete Nile are elegant copses of signs for the (upscale) malls and weedy patches of decaying signs for the (downscale) strip malls. Among the billboards touting Texas-tough trucks and Texas-sized tacos, you can savor sly logos: “God listens,” boasts our local Christian radio station, while the convenience chain Buc-ee’s reminds us of their clean restrooms with “Don’t worry, P happy.” At other signs we simply shudder. Gentlemen’s clubs? Anything but, we tell our kids.

Welcome to my world of signifiers, where franchises sacred and profane, megachurches and malls, invite exegesis. Several years ago, the evangelical Grace Community Church, with locations in San Diego and north Houston, opened a new storefront not too far from my own neighborhood. With its vast hexagonal buiilding already dwarfing its neighbors—including a Lexus dealership and a former strip club known as Vixxen—the 18,000-member congregation planned to further advertise its presence with a 200-foot cross. That plan was thwarted when the FAA noticed that the proposed cross conflicted with nearby Ellington Field’s flight path.

In lieu of a giant cross, Grace has had to make do with bright billboards emblazoned with blond families plugging their churchly community, cable station and conception of the world. Yet the setback has not stopped Steve and Becky Riggle, the church’s founders and senior pastors, from remaining fixtures on the local news.

Tune in to any of our talk and news stations during your daily commute and chances are you’ll have heard about the city’s proposed anti-discrimination ordinance. In particular, the ordinance is aimed at any business that refuses service on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Paint stores, pawnshops and pulperias—just a few of the plethora of businesses along I-45—could not deny you their services. Should they try, they would be subject to fines as high as $5,000.

As the vote approached, the ordinance mobilized not just the LBGT community and its supporters, but also a number of local megachurches. Second Baptist Church, whose membership of 64,000 beggars the adequacy of the “mega” prefix, and whose several locations lie close along Houston’s major traffic arteries, came out against the measure, with senior pastor Ed Young declaring that the rights of the LGBT community end where the prerogatives of Christian morality begin.

While the Riggles made the same argument, their efforts were both more colorful and more candid. The color came mostly from Steve Riggle during a public session at City Hall a few weeks ago. In an exchange with Councilmember Ellen Cohen, Riggle alluded to the now-legendary predicament of the Oregon baker whose Christian principles led him to refuse to take a cake order from a gay couple. Would it be any different, Riggle asked, if a Jewish baker refused an order for a cake decorated with a swastika? Cohen suggested that it would be different: Nazi pastry connoisseurs are not, like gays under the proposed ordinance, a protected class. When Cohen then asked if a Christian baker could deny service to a Jewish client because Judaism is an affront to his faith, Pastor Riggle realized he was about to slide down a slippery slope and declined to answer.

Becky Riggle barreled down that same slope, however, when she made a separate appearance before City Council. Councilwoman Cohen asked the same question she had posed to Steve: Should a Christian store owner, troubled by a customer’s Jewish faith, be able to deny her service? To general astonishment, Becky Riggle replied: “Yes, I am saying that. But that is not the issue that we’re talking about today.” With a poker face, Annise Parker, Houston’s unflappable gay mayor, then turned to the next speaker.

Of course, many Houstonians—Jewish, gay and otherwise—disagree with the pastor. And her claim that religious faith trumps civil rights and justifies discriminatory practices is precisely the issue. But as I drive by these vast fortresses of faith on my daily commute, I think I can begin to see the Riggles’ view.

Megachurches like Grace and Second Baptist rise along our traffic corridors for the same reason that fast-food restaurants do: where better to advertise one’s merchandise than in front of a massive audience streaming past day and night? And where better to trumpet a transcendent faith than these polluted arteries lined with strip clubs, loan sharks, tattoo parlors, 24-hour video stores and Thai massage spas? Given the apparent corruption of this particular landscape, it’s hardly surprising that these churches become worlds unto themselves. The comfort of these faith-bound cocoons makes their members all the more vulnerable to culture shock. From pre-K to high school, fitness centers to financial advisers, concerts to cafés, members of these churches need confront the world outside the bubble only when they step into their places of work. Like a bakery. Or when they need to find a public restroom. Like at Buc-ee’s.

In fact, for Grace and Second Baptist, public restrooms are very much the issue. In a video released by Grace Church, the Riggles insisted that Houston’s ordinance, which covers transgender individuals, will transform women’s restrooms into hunting grounds for cross-dressing male predators. Rather than P happy, the Riggles warn, P afraid.

I am not so anxious. As I drive along I-45, the countless texts tumbling past the window reflect a world that is, to be sure, often disconcerting. But it’s also a world whose dissonance represents exuberance and tolerance.

Now that the ordinance has passed, I tell myself: P hopeful. And P certain that while the odds are long of finding a clean toilet along I-45, they are even longer of finding a bearded stalker waiting in the ladies’ room.

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