Book Review

Nowhere Else But Brownsville


By Oscar Casares

To the national media Brownsville is home to ruthless narcotraficantes and heartless polleros, traffickers in human flesh who cram unsuspecting immigrants into suffocating containers. To the business press the self-proclaimed “Crossroads of the Hemisphere” is a poster child for NAFTA. In the hands of native son Os-car Casares, whose debut short story collection is named after his hometown, Brownsville takes on a different persona.”Oscar Casares does for Brownsville, Texas,” enthuses novelist Tim Gautreaux in his book jacket blurb, “what Eudora Welty did for Jackson, Mississippi.”

That’s high praise for a man not yet 40, who started out writing advertising copy and discovered early on that he could entertain his colleagues with tales of everyday life on the border in the southernmost tip of Texas. In Brownsville, Casares delivers stories that are well-crafted and build carefully on dialogue and details to reach little epiphanies, or at least sketch a vignette of border life. No affected use of postmodern devices here, just straightforward plot and character development with a few flashbacks thrown in–interesting and accessible. But there was something about the range of emotions evoked as I raced through the stories that forced me to read them again. Had I imagined feeling deep resentment when I read about the adolescent boy whose manipulative boss disrespects his family? Were my tears for the “old man who cleans yards” just a cathartic product of my own hard day? Just what was it about the wisecracking slacker who befriends a monkey head, the macho man who rationalizes poisoning a neighbor’s dog, and old Mrs. Perez who discovers a novel for a bowling ball?

I’m still not sure what it is about Casares’ engaging characters. One thing that struck me on subsequent readings was the fact that all of the protagonists are men, with the sole exception of the eponymous “Mrs. Perez.” But Casares manages to demystify the myth of machismo by creating characters that are trapped by their own concept of masculinity. Providing for a family, protecting one’s own and the family’s honor, and presenting a properly male façade–party boy and breadwinner alike–are central concerns to all of them. Whether they succeed or fail is almost irrelevant–it’s their effort that is so intriguing.

“Big Jesse, Little Jesse,” for example, is a careening carnival ride on machismo. Little Jesse is a bookish boy with a slight disability–one leg is shorter than the other is. Big Jesse accepts his son’s disability, but can’t abide Little Jesse’s disdain for pursuits, such as video games and street football, that Big Jesse deems normal and manly. His estranged wife Corina’s encouragement of little Jesse’s studious nature infuriates him; class is a big issue with the warring couple:

Jesse doesn’t blame her family for feeling the way they do about him. He wouldn’t like a guy like himself, either, especially now. Corina’s family is made up of people who get married and stay married. Two of her brothers are lawyers and live in San Antonio with their families. Another brother is a dentist who lives and works with his wife in Houston. Corina and her sister are the only ones who stayed in Brownsville. Gloria married an older man who’s a Customs supervisor at the bridge. They can’t have kids, which is why they have the extra money to help out with Little Jesse’s school.

From the beginning, we know that Big Jesse is setting himself up for failure. In contrast, “Domingo” is an unorthodox story of redemption, heartbreaking in its gentle portrayal of the noble, considerate “old man who cleans yards.” On what would have been his long-dead daughter’s 21st birthday, his loneliness and sorrow become almost unbearable. But Domingo must work, and tightened border controls make every visit back to his home in the interior of Mexico more difficult. La Señora Ross pays and means well, even as she turns the radio to that awful Tejano station as a favor to Domingo, adds spicy mustard that hurts his stomach to the sandwiches, and arrives so late to pick him up for work that the day is already hot. She has no idea that, as Domingo goes about his work, his soul is cleft by remorse.

Brownsville is divided into three sections. Just as with a three-act play, the first two build up tension, while the last section offers a measure of relief–sometimes comic, sometimes erotic. “Don’t believe anything he tells you,” narrator George Fuentes warns us about his cousin Jerry, the quintessential salesman who calls everybody “primo,” or cousin. When Jerry asks if George ever thinks about the future, we know right off the bat “he didn’t come over to compare horoscopes.” From the beginning of “Jerry Fuentes,” it’s apparent that George will end up caving in to Jerry’s nefarious persuasive techniques. But watching it all happen is still great fun. In “Yolanda,” an unhappily married 36-year-old man fantasizes as he lies in bed next to his sleeping wife. He remembers the summer when he was 12 and the beautiful Yolanda moved into the house next door with her possessive husband, Frank. Through his bedroom window, the boy could hear everything they said and did. Years later he recalls Yolanda’s growing independence, Frank’s increasing abuse, and his own hopeless crush on the young woman, thoroughly convincing us of Frank’s evil nature and Yolanda’s inherent innocence–or so it seems.

Finally, Casares ends on an optimistic note with “Mrs. Perez.” Lola–or Mrs. Perez–is a woman who finally finds her place in the sun by becoming a champion league bowler after the death of her miserly and restrictive husband, Agustin. He was so cheap that he haggles with an indigent Monterrey photographer over the price of their honeymoon portrait. As Casares wryly describes the much younger Lola in the photograph, “She wore the nervous smile of a young woman who has just realized that she’s boarded the wrong train.”

Throughout Brownsville Casares’ frequent uses of short Spanish phrases without differentiating them by italics or quotation marks appears natural; it’s simply the way his characters use language. The context is such that non-Spanish-speaking readers will always get the gist of the meaning. After all, that’s the way the real Brownsville sounds and while comparisons to Eudora Welty may be premature, Oscar Casares has definitely created a place where idiosyncrasy reigns supreme and human relationships are infinitely complex.

Sandra Spicher is a recent Michener Fellow, writer, and translator from Lago Vista who has studied machismo extensively, if not academically.