Portrait of the Artist as a Young Chula
Take the commitments of a short story, the achy sureness of a memoir, the unraveling of a long poem, and the occasional, humorous swoop into the dramatic monologue, and what do you get? You get what novelist and playwright Denise Chávez offers up in Vintage Contemporaries’ re-issue of her first short story collection (first published in 1986 by Arte Público Press), The Last of the Menu Girls. Chávez originally wrote these stories as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico and was happy to have them published so swiftly—only to enter later into nine years of litigation over the book’s rights. “It’s a long story,” she states in the introduction.
To the credit of this re-issue, what the long delay has bred is a new and much more whole set of stories. Here’s a writer at the top of her game, gone back to revise and rearrange the eager and heated narratives of her young adulthood. While this chore might spell disaster for other writers, Chávez broaches these revisions with admirable dexterity, trusting the keen observer she was 20 years ago. She retains the strength of the original narrative—its engagement with the world, its unabashed emotions and vulnerabilities—and simply fills out her register with an older, wiser voice, laying it in organically, as if the collection had been waiting for her to do so in order to ripen. What Chávez achieves here is significant: a series of seven electric coming-of-age stories tempered by a voice deep with mature longings and intentions. This is what nostalgia feels like before it settles into nostalgia. It’s emotion, raw and transitory, the thing we long for even before it’s gone. These stories crystallize and dissolve: alive, fleeting, with painful awareness of their irretrievability.
The one thing this book is not, however, is what it claims to be on the book’s cover: a “novel in stories.” The claim is ultimately, and frustratingly, misleading. At worst, it’s diminutive. Sure there’s a central character who appears in each story. Sure that character seems, over the long haul, to stretch and break and heal and stretch and break and heal. But all the connective tissue of a novel is missing here. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the collection’s greatest assets. Without those larger, over-arching commitments the stories are free to come and go as they please, to touch each other at points, without the obligation to drag forward a complete and tidy narrative, scene by complete and tidy scene. Instead, this book follows every one of its multitudinous impulses. It does not worry about its packaging—and, by the middle of the third story, when this reader’s expectations of noveltude were still being thwarted, I realized it’d be best if I stopped worrying about it as well.
What Chávez has made transcends such conventions. In the introduction, she explains her own frustration with naming the structure:
Some critics call The Last of the Menu Girls a series of interconnected stories, others call it a novel. I think of the book in more theatrical terms, and wish someone would come up with some sort of terminology to address this dramatic story structure…
Indeed, there is something dramatic about these stories—some of them, especially the multiply-narrated “Space is a Solid,” begin and end as a series of monologues—yet to call them dramatic stories is still to put too fine a point on it. And of course, the temptation to call it a novel is clearly present: there is that same main character throughout. But, come on. The character (Rocío) is revealed in these seven pieces at such different critical moments in the development of her womanhood (by the way, are there any non-critical moments in the development of one’s womanhood?) that really, each time, she could be an entirely different character. Chávez’s work as a novelist, in previous works such as Face of an Angel and Loving Pedro Infante, is so crafty and substantial, that it seems almost rude to consider this collection as an example of it.
Instead, what Chávez excels at here is a kind of distillation of emotion and experience. Each piece is a universe of its own. In these stories, Rocío is a woman both engaged with the world and irreducibly conflicted by that engagement. Most often that conflict resonates with an emotional complexity expansive enough to signal any number of mixed emotions: sadness and humor, want and shame, resistance and submission. Rocío is a giver who longs to be given to, as in the heartbreaking, “Evening in Paris,” a subtle, heartbreaking discourse on Christmas gift-giving which turns on the repeated and hilarious appearance of “the Jesus wallet,” which gets passed from sister to mother to sister, year after year, and becomes a kind of metaphor for the expectation and disappointment of giving itself. In other stories, Rocío is an observer who longs to be observed. In “Shooting Stars,” she remembers: “When I was a young girl, I conjured images from the white walls of my father’s old study room. Faces leapt out from the plaster’s twists and turns,” and is thus off on an elegiac inventory of the women who populated her childhood summers in West Texas. In the end, she attempts to come to terms with her place among them:
The turning plaster waves revealed my sisters, my mother, my cousins, my friends, their nude forms, half-dressed, hanging out, lumpish, lovely, unaware of self, in rest rooms, in dressing rooms, in the many stalls and theaters in this life…I was the monitor of women’s going forth. Behind the mirror, eyes half-closed, I saw myself, the cloud princess.
It’s moments like this when the tone of a memoir becomes perceptible. While in the introduction Chávez warns us against reading the stories as autobiographical, what these stories often offer is not only the portrait of a young woman, but the portrait of an artist as a young woman. Rocío again and again voices her longing to both live in this world, to peer deeply at it, and to be swept away by it. And it’s that older, more experienced voice easing us into these emotions which is so solid, trustworthy, and so terribly funny.
In these stories, set mostly in New Mexico and West Texas, Chávez employs her innate sense of place to create a kind of heightened intimacy with her audience. This is to say she takes nothing for granted, and paints for her readers very specific landscapes that defy the common, often romantic, assumptions about life in the Desert Southwest. While there is always a reverential tone here, I never get the sense Chávez is relying on clichés to situate us in this landscape, both physical and cultural. She is relentlessly specific, most often humorously so, in revealing to us neighborhoods like Chiva Town, Little Oklahoma, Brown City. She offers fresh insight into small-town life in places like Marfa, the sun bitten faces of the old, the inner workings of hospital life, the various sorrows and odors of the old and the dying. She talks of an unforgiving heat, the death of numerous cherished trees, and the innocent beginnings of what has now become the scourge of urban sprawl. She elegizes a front door. She captures a time. She brings to life communities in flux, examines the clash of class and race, and never shies away from getting at anything less than a character’s full, often fully troubled, personhood. She paints a truly complicated portrait of a mother, husbandless, and her relationship with her three daughters. The men in these stories are made present by their absence, physical or emotional.
It is exciting to come into contact with writing this fresh and heartening, especially now, when the honesty and humanity of voices like Chávez’s are being duplicated and tenderized to the point of kitschiness. Believe me, this is the real thing: a voice for which we are already nostalgic: heartening, hilarious, human.
Carrie Fountain is a 2004 graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin. Originally from New Mexico, she now lives in Austin.