Page 17


BOOKS AND THE CULTURE MOST OF the winners and losers in Dagoberto Gilb’s stories live in Los Angeles or Hous ton. But few can leave behind the clear desert air or the Franklin Mountains. They have moved on but their hearts remain in Amado Muro’s city. El Paso is to Gilb what Egdon Heath was to Thomas Hardy. This collection of eight stories begins in El Paso. “Down in the West Texas Town” is an afternoon in the life of a down-and-out framing crew day laborers driving home sixteen-penny nails in three licks beneath an unforgiving West Texas sun, then boozing and snorting their way to an almost ritualistic cooking of a spoon of heroin. Photographed, these characters would hang nicely in a Richard Avedon gallery. This is .an intimidating selection to place at the beginning of a collection. Brutal and all but devoid of humor, it is likely to discourage more than a few readers. And that would be unfortunate. Consider “The Short Life and Quick Death of Love in L.A.” Within the space of some 1,100 words, Gilb fully develops a character and manages to tell an amusing tale pregnant with pathos. There is more insight than revelation into the character of Jake, who has driven his uninsured ’58 Buick into the back of a brand new Toyota driven by a beautiful Venezuelan. Jake drives away from the overpass at Hollywood Freeway and Alvarado convinced that he has adroitly deceived the Venezuelan, Veronica, believing he came fairly close to seducing her. The reader knows better. Jake is as uncovered and vulnerable as the ’58 Buick with the borrowed plates. Back in El Paso, “The Desperado,” which follows “Down in West Texas” is a mundanely desperate story that begins and ends with the slam of a screen door. Between a mother’s leaving and a father’s stepping out, a bawling toddler and a frazzled dope-dealing father come Louis Dubose, a frequent Observer contributor, lives in Austin. to terms with one another over beer, burnt toast, and marijuana. It’s not as upbeat as it sounds, and the Los Angeles of “Where the Sun Don’t Shine” that follows is surely a kinder place for fathers and sons. Where the sun don’t shine is at the WINNERS ON THE PASS LINE By Dagoberto Gilb Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso, 1985 93 pages, $5.95 bottom of a luxury condominium with “its structural steel just coming out of the hole,” where an L.A. carpenter is struggling with the unfair criticism heaped upon him by a Latter Day Saint, who just happens to be the general foreman. It was all to make a decent living. . . .So Sal went on with his work, ignoring the fact that the general foreman wasn’t letting him have the overtime, not saying anything about the small irritations thrown his way, like never having a laborer to find material or to bring him a tool, or getting all the dirtiest jobs in the dirtiest places, or about his getting a new partner ever day and a half or less. . . . Instead he thought of the pretty dresses he was buying for his pretty daughters, the happy face of his [pregnant] wife when he got home to a sirloin steak in a cast-iron pan with onions and chile and tomato staining the apron that hugged her round stomach. The author, according to the cover notes, has been earning his money “as a carpenter, primarily in the construction of highrise buildings.” “Where the Sun Don’t Shine” is the work of a writer who has paid his dues to an AFLCIO local. THESE STORIES are not urbane; they are urban and at times suburban. “Photographs Near a Rolls Royce” brings to mind the short fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason, published a few years back in the pages of the Atlantic. An Angeleno couple she can’t get Texas off her mind plan a night out. But they’re recent arrivals to a Los Angeles neighborhood where “the calm blend of Pedro Infante and Mozart is strange” and where now and again neighborhood kids on the street run into Los Angeles Dodger Pedro Guerrero. \(Here’s hoping that his recent injury will dull the edge of Tommy borhood a babysitter is hard to find. There is a large Nicaraguan woman, a neighbor who rides a bus to her fulltime job at the downtown Burger King and who has hair “tinted red for what looks like fun.” But a night out requires small compromises: asking a casual acquaintance to keep the children, pumping breast milk and buying a bottle for the baby, cleaning the house, laying in beer, then taking down the miniature El Salvador Libre flag. Yet the babysitter doesn’t exactly work out; later the flag is returned to its place on the wall. “You can never be sure what people think . . . there’s no point in hiding what you believe to be true.” Told in the first person conversational, “Photographs” is intelligent, engaging, and witty. “Winners on the Pass Line” brings Ray Munoz of Houston and Sylvia Molina of Huntington Beach both formerly of El Paso together at one end of a Las Vegas crap table. “What’s all this stuff about El Paso?” Sylvia’s husband asks her. Later, he reminds her that “wanting to be with your family is as Mexican as having babies.” But Sylvia doesn’t want to visit El Paso, or her family. A few hours alone in the casinos is all she wants at the moment. And she has brought along her youngest child, to assure that they would gamble in shifts. Ray came to gamble. Later he will pass through El Paso to visit his kids and his father’s grave. He wanders through casinos, betting at random dice and roulette tables, losing big at poker. It is the roll of dice on green felt that brings Sylvia and Ray together. There is a strong sense of fatalism in this finely crafted story. And sufficient complexity to make up a short novel. Yet at twentythree pages, “Winners” works; it works very well. As do most of the stories in this collection. Winners on the Pass Line is the first publication of Cinco Puntos Press, an El Paso publishing house \(2709 LouisGilb was born in Los Angeles but now makes his home in El Paso, where he is working on a novel. At $5.95 Winners on the Pass Line is a bargain. I hope that it’s distributed widely. On El Paso and Points West By Louis Dubose 20 APRIL 18, 1986