Lionel Garcia’s short stories, much like the flashbulb on a camera, expose and illuminate moments–generally dark ones–in the lives of ordinary people. Suddenly, in an instant of revelation and discovery, we are brought to terms with the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.
For the past 40 years, Garcia, a practicing veterinarian who writes at night, has been producing stories, novels, and plays placed, for the most part, but not exclusively, in the bleak South Texas brush country, a setting which often reflects the circumstances and emotional condition of his characters. Among the awards he has received are the PEN Southwest Discovery Award and the Texas Institute of Letters Novel of the Year Award.
In The Day They Took My Uncle and Other Stories, his most recent collection, ordinary events are run through with poignancy and significance. The stories deal with hardship, small acts of kindness and the occasional triumph. He writes about a man who is always hungry; a hooker’s small child who rides a bus at night watched over by the compassionate driver; a lonely woman who seduces her plumber; a Salvadoran sergeant who undergoes a unique transformation upon discovering President Kennedy’s sister is married to a sergeant, Sargent Shriver.
Some storytellers dwell on plot, some on character. Garcia falls into the second category. His protagonists are generally Mexican-Americans, Blacks, or poor whites, usually blue-collar workers, the elderly, and sometimes the very young. Often overwhelmed by the system and encumbered by poverty, ignorance, the inability to communicate, and, in the most extreme cases, insanity, they are denied the luxury of choice. They experience moments of loneliness, anger, guilt, confusion, frustration, and ultimately numbness. (Garcia has often been compared to Chekhov. He reminds me of Steinbeck, as well.) Yet, surprisingly, many of these stories contain flashes of humor, even hilarity, and leave room for hope.
Unlike the traditional short story, which is linear in structure–a low-keyed beginning leads to a climax and ends with a denouement–these stories are often open-ended or circular. They return to the beginning. Life will repeat itself, they caution. In fact, the stories rarely provide a well-defined conclusion capable of wrapping up all the loose ends. Instead, the author evokes a mood and an atmosphere and provides insight into the characters and their motivations.
While most of Garcia’s characters share some features in common and his stories are constructed in much the same way, his versatility is impressive. His fiction ranges from the highly realistic and fully credible, to work which exposes a harsher truth and borders on the naturalistic, to the surreal.
In this collection the stories most fully grounded in reality–and, without a doubt, the most accessible–expose painful and highly personal moments in the lives of individuals estranged from their families. In “Parents,” a son returns home and finds himself caught up in the conflicts wracking the household and his relationship with his father: “I look at my father and I hope to God, with some pain in conscience, that I don’t grow to look like him when I get old.” Yet, despite his distaste, he is capable of remembering better times: “The smell of wet soil has turned me. Now I feel a part of the land and I don’t want to leave. My senses have filled me with nostalgia, with a querencia, and driven me back home.” However, he refuses to give his father the satisfaction of letting him know.
In the final analysis, the majority of these stories are not mere slices of life, they are great chunks of it, and the writing verges on the naturalistic: Much of the narration is detached and unemotional; characters and society are depicted objectively, almost scientifically, and great attention is paid to detail. Little things like bus schedules, how to fix a leak, hospital procedure, or historical details about building the railroad in Texas are convincingly portrayed.
However, he deviates from traditional naturalist writers–Emile Zola or Jack London, for example–in that he never openly advocates reform. Rather, his weariness with the system, and his disillusion, is implicit in his writing.
In “Emergency Room” Garcia writes eloquently about an overworked hospital orderly’s lack of feeling: “He would simply walk off at the end of his shift and he would not see it until the next day… He would be sure to listen but he did not care anymore. He did not hear anymore. There were no more feelings in him to care about. He closed the sliding window to keep away from the crowd.” Only when bureaucratic procedure threatens to destroy a simple Mexican family mourning their child’s death, does he rebel. In this story, and in others, the victory lies in successfully circumventing a dehumanizing system.
Although most of the stories here range from the highly realistic to the almost believable, at times the author does not bother to strive for credibility–at least not in the conventional sense. In order to drive home basic truths both “The Wedding” and “Eladio Comes Home” venture beyond the rational into the surreal. The former is an ingenious story nestled within a second story nestled within a third, much like the painted Russian dolls which fit one inside the other, a technique Garcia employs elsewhere. The latter is a reflection on the nature of grief: A son’s death during wartime forces the family’s home to disintegrate. “Unknown to them [the house] had begun to die.”
What Garcia does best, however, is to combine the highly realistic with the absurd, as he does in the title story, “The Day They Took My Uncle.” This is a child’s account of his family’s attempt to save an insane uncle who has a habit of hurling epithets at the mayor, his wife, and the Sisters of the Incarnate Word (but only when he’s drunk). Garcia skillfully combines boisterous comedy with grim realism, magic realism, and folklore.
In his introduction to the collection, Garcia writes that a short story “should leave the reader in a disturbed sense of feelings.” That’s exactly what these stories do, in great part because of his ability to write terse, powerful, understated prose and masterful dialogue. In “Girl,” for example, the main character explains why she left a boyfriend:
“… He took a shot at me. Missed me though.”
“He shot you?”
“He shot at me, honey. There is a difference.”
“He missed, you say?”
“Not quite. I got some buckshot in me on my chest. Around my tits. A little above my crotch.”
“So he didn’t exactly miss you.”
“No and yes. I guess he could have killed me if he wanted to. But he loved me enough just to spray me like a hunting dog. Then he burnt the house.”
Aside from offering an effective vehicle for the brand of irony and broad humor Garcia favors, extensive use of dialogue or, at times, a first-person narrator, enables him to develop his story and fill out his characters while allowing us to reach our own conclusions. The people he writes about are often “innocents” who know far less than we do, and speak in vernacular or in Spanish. (This last he uses to great advantage in his writing.) However, while Garcia is probably conversant in Spanish, his written use of that language is at times marred by mistakes. While minor, they damage his credibility and flaw the work.
Occasionally repetition, which generally serves him well as a humorous device, can become excessive and, at its worst, tedious. But overall, the stories included here demonstrate Garcia at his best. With the exception of “West Texas Cowboys,” a very funny farce in the Keystone Cops tradition, which seems out of place here, the stories included tend to overlap in ways that give the collection some cohesion. However, if each story had been accompanied by the date of completion–or lacking that, the date of publication when applicable–this may have offered insight into Garcia’s development as a writer.
In discussing writing in general he notes, “A writer’s job is to depict life and its events in the way he sees them.” Perhaps. But Garcia sees things that would escape most of us and isolates them within the boundaries of his stories, where they take on new and surprising import.
Thus, when defining “a writer’s job,” he oversimplifies. His work goes far beyond that: He filters his reality through his sharp wit, cynicism, wild imagination, and unconstrained humor. Like Picasso’s portraits of women during his Cubist phase, Garcia’s stories enhance and distort. This, in turn, accomplishes far more than “depict[ing] life and its events.” It jolts us into an understanding normally beyond our reach.
Diana Anhalt is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Press). She lives in Mexico City.