Book Review

If John Wayne Met Franz Kafka

Shadows walk away from their owners, a young man awaits a train that may have arrived forty years ago, a terrifying black pig is swept away by a maelstrom. Ray Gonzalez’s stories are very strange indeed. On one level, the literal one, they range from the highly implausible to the barely believable, but on another level they are capable of evoking reality without actually embracing it. This enigmatic dream fiction, laced through with dark humor, may leave you feeling as though I’d missed the point.

However, if you decide to tackle Gonzalez’s first short fiction collection, you may be glad, as I was, that you stuck it out. And if you do, begin with The Chinese Restaurant. It was with this story that I began to understand what Gonzalez, a prize-winning poet and editor of over a half-dozen anthologies of Latino poetry and essays, was driving at. It also helps to read these stories as if they were poems, not primarily for their sound, but for their content. (While beautifully written, the language is not highly lyrical.) Like poems, many of these stories are very short, ranging from two to three pages, and can be read, like much poetry, in less time than it would take to smoke a cigarette or drink a glass of water. They are, in addition, highly suggestive, and give rise to feelings that go far beyond what is expressed on the printed page. Like first-rate poetry, they are capable of leaving you with a sudden flash of insight.

The Chinese Restaurant is a good example of what Gonzalez does best. After eight years of estrangement a son meets his father for lunch in a Chinese restaurant. During their meal, a brutal murder is enacted before their eyes. Even if we refuse to believe the literal account–the cook buried her meat cleaver in her husband’s back–we cannot ignore the father’s total indifference to the horror unfolding before him and his insistence that his son do the same. By extension, we can only imagine what has actually occurred in the father-son relationship. What is left unsaid is as important as what is said, and the reader is free to interpret it, much as one might interpret a dream–or a nightmare.

Despite the seeming unreality of the world Gonzalez depicts, his style–in stark contrast to his content–is precise, straightforward and down to earth, accompanied by lucid depiction and attention to meaningful detail. He writes of a universe beset by natural–and supernatural–elements. His protagonists are often children, or resemble children, because they are powerless in the grip of circumstance. In such a world, the consequences are inevitable, irrevocable and filled with paradox, irony, and absurdity.

In that respect, Ray Gonzalez, a Mexican-American raised in the desert southwest of El Paso, reminds me of Franz Kafka, an Austrian, raised in the German-Jewish enclave of Prague: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” When Kafka tells us that a man woke up to discover he had turned into a cockroach, we can relate to this as a metaphorical extension of a human condition and state of mind.

We can relate to some of Gonzalez’s stories in much the same way. The Scorpion Eater, for example, is a horrific tale about a scorned lover who chooses to kill himself in the company of his former lover’s grandchild by swallowing a scorpion. Following his death, the boy, Miguel, “… saw the silhouette of an enormous scorpion tail covering the glowing doorway.” Perhaps this is a commentary on the nature of passion, much as Metamorphosis is a commentary on the human condition. In reading Gonzalez’s story it may help to remember that the female scorpion ordinarily devours the male following copulation. But in The Scorpion Eater the male does the devouring and is turned into a scorpion. The protagonist dies–or so we’re told–but not before taking his revenge and leaving his mark. (In fact, many of these are tales of revenge, wrought not only by men, but also by natural phenomena.)

Yet, unlike Kafka, for whom location is of secondary importance, Gonzalez writes of the southwest United States and northern Mexico with a strong sense of place. His stories are set on isolated ranchos, in seedy border towns, in the rugged beauty of the Hill Country and along the muddy wash of the Rio Grande. Its creatures are the lizards, snakes, scorpions and domesticated animals possessed, like totems, of primitive, supernatural powers. He fuses the history, memory and folklore of both countries and creates a psychedelic mythology replete with UFOs, la migra, the smell of burning flesh, Day-Glo poster art and mescal obsession. As a result, his stories are often compared to myths and, like myths, must be accepted on faith.

In The Apparition we are asked to believe in miracles that crop up in very ordinary places, the bathroom, for example: Carlos, the protagonist, “glanced at the plastic shower curtain stretched across the tub. The face of la Virgen was illuminated on the curtain… As a result of his bathroom discovery, almost five hundred people had trampled through Carlos’s house in two weeks… His shower curtain had been famous for fourteen days.”

Gonzalez generally uses magical realism to comment on the nature of faith, lost opportunity, self-revelation and human relationships. But in The Ghost of John Wayne, he juxtaposes everyday life with the slightly surreal in an attempt to question widely accepted historic fact. Unlike most of the other stories in this collection–Invisible Country is also an exception–the title story is clearly political in nature.

A psychic is called in to search the Alamo for John Wayne’s ghost, but in the course of his investigation uncovers disconcerting lies and omissions in official interpretations involving Mexican-American relations. The narrator, a writer greatly disconcerted by the psychic’s find, questions the perpetuation of fabrication over fact, only to be told: “It would change history and people don’t want that.” In other words, the general public will always opt for the Hollywood version over the true one. When that occurs, history comes back to haunt us or, in this case, John Wayne’s ghost. This, without a doubt, is one of the most effective stories in the lot. (However, the author could easily have dispensed with the last seven paragraphs, which tend to distract us from the gist of the story.)

If in The Ghost of John Wayne he tends to drag out the ending unnecessarily, elsewhere he ends the story too soon, denying the reader a chance to connect fully with the characters and the events, thus losing his chance to deliver that final knock-out blow. At least half a dozen tales left me dangling, and not for lack of trying: The Jalapeño Contest, The Properties of Magic, and How the Brujo Stole the Moon are among them. In the latter we are told that the local witch wishes to possess the moon, is possessed instead for reasons we are unable to fathom, and disappears.

An ending like that leaves me feeling as if the electric power had gone out during a movie. In this case, I couldn’t help but ask myself whether this was the writer’s failure or my own. But I tend to believe some of the stories are just too pat, too obscure, lack development and specificity. I was reminded of the Captain Marvel or Mandrake the Magician comic strips, which I loved as a child. I loved them for their wild improbability and for their loopy energy. I was willing to indulge my imagination and perform daring leaps of faith. No longer. As an adult I require, if not logic and coherence, at least the ability to relate to the story on some level, a figurative one, perhaps.

I have since learned that Gonzalez began to write as a child, inspired by the comic books he read. (I wonder if he ever came across Mandrake the Magician.) Traces of comic book fantasy still cling to these pages, capable of exercising the same mesmerizing hold on the reader. (Just try putting down one of these stories in the middle.) As with a comic book, you will return to your favorites again and again. For me, the test of a good story lies in its ability to haunt me long after I’ve stopped reading. I need to walk away from what I read with some trace of it still clinging to me like chalk dust clings to fingers or lint to wool. If that’s what you look for in a story, you will not be disappointed. The best of these are capable of doing precisely that.

Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).

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Published at 12:00 am CST