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The Measure of a Man

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Before the End, After the Beginning: Stories by Dagoberto Gilb

AFICIONADOS OF STORIES IN WHICH tough guys take care of their families and manage to get a little action on the side have looked to the work of Dagoberto Gilb since his 1985 debut collection Winners on the Pass Line and Other Stories.

Before the End, After the Beginning, the latest collection from the master storyteller, doesn’t simply return readers to a world of men trying to scrape together a living while fending off destructive romance; it also offers characters who court the dream of absolution alongside the anxiety and anticipation of amor.

In his first major collection, 1994’s The Magic of Blood, Gilb presented a set of serious young men who fretted over making rent, stood vigil in their homes to guard against rats and landlords alike, and traded in their drunken dreams of societal revolution for the sobriety of life with the wife and kids.

Like Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski, Gilb writes about work and love, the two things that Freud said lent meaning to life. Unlike Carver and Bukowski, Gilb doesn’t write so much about drinking, and he is no minimalist. What has often gone unnoticed, even as Gilb earned praise for his authentic depictions of West Texas poverty and California blues, is his emergence as a decidedly European stylist. Gilb is an ex-construction worker who studied world religion in graduate school.

Who among the handful of reviewers of his most recent novel, The Flowers, noted the striking tonal similarities between the narrative about an adolescent stealing books under the seductive sanctuary of his mother’s attention and the work of Jean Genet?

And his first published novel, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, reads like a Beckett absurdity set in the Southwest. Stories like “About Tere Who Was in Palomas” (from Woodcuts of Women) or “Look on the Bright Side” (from The Magic of Blood) meander in their authorial calm like Paul Bowles’ travel writing.

Because there is so much substance to Gilb’s tales—especially in this latest collection—the subtlety of his stories often slips by.

In “Cheap,” a musician who is going blind has to suffer conversation with a bigoted man he has hired to do inexpensive home repairs. Amid an exchange about money, politics, and non-denominational churchgoing, we are introduced to one of his workers, a Mexican named Uriel. Uriel is the name of the angel who guards Eden, the literal light of God. It strikes me that the author could have chosen to call the fellow “Angel,” a typical and believable-enough Mexican name, instead of Uriel. Gilb still would have gotten the same frisson across, but the choice would not have been as wise. By choosing the obscure biblical name, Gilb has punctuated the anonymity of the undocumented worker, taking him from ignored to epic and giving him his overdue respect.

Gilb has always written stories that ask the big questions and mine social concerns. Who am I as a Latino? What does it mean that I am a father, a son? In “please, thank you” readers experience such identity struggles taken to an existential level. The protagonist is recovering from a stroke and wonders about his body and his fate; the language and method Gilb employs echoes the war-torn prose of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, as well as the sullen paranoia of early William Burroughs:

“i used to be strong. just the other day! just the other day, a couple of weeks ago. now, now these people come into my room. my room is more my bed. a modern bed that moves up and down with a control.”

Gilb’s previous collection, Woodcuts of Women, had some hits and misses (actually Hits and Misses might have been a better title). The 10 stories were about men suffering the erotic strain of women, powerless and sometimes almost masochistically happy about their state. In tone, it came off a little like Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex by way of Chekhov. By contrast, Before the End, After the Beginning is a balanced brute. We get stories about bad friends and good fathers.

The terrible things that befall a man are not always his fault, Gilb seems to say with these stories, but neither, alas, are the blessings: the children who play at your feet, that girl who accepts your kiss, and that land you return to before you die.

Roberto Ontiveros is an artist, writer and contributing editor to Latino Magazine. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and the anthology Hecho en Tejas, which was edited by Dagoberto Gilb.

Roberto Ontiveros is an artist, critic and fiction writer; his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Threepenny Review, the Dallas Morning News, and others.