BOOKS & THE CULTURE Chronicle of a Death Foretold BY LOUIS DUBOSE SCHOOLLAND By Max Martinez Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1988 250 pages; $8.50 MAX MARTINEZ’S autobiographical novel Schoolland pertains to several genres. It is a coming-of age novel. documenting one year of an boy’s progress toward manhood. It is a regional novel, so firmly rooted in the red-brown soil of Gonzalez County that the careful reader is left wondering why, after all the wells had run dry, the protagonist’s family doesn’t drive north on Highway 80, toward Belmont, to bathe in the tepid Guadalupe. It is a sociological novel in the tradition of Steinbeck, carefully considering the circumstances of a Mexican-American family in Texas of the 1950s. It is, also in the tradition of Steinbeck, a novel of social protest that places an honest family of farmers across the fence from a handful of unsympathetic but at least indigenous bankers with designs on the family land. It is a loss-ofinnocence story in which a young man prepares for the death of his grandfather. Now, if all of this sounds like “The Waltons” a la mexicana, well, that’s just the way it shakes out. Martinez hasn’t written a great novel, but he does tell an interesting story that might have more sociological than literary value. And this is not to suggest that Schoolland is pedantic or scholarly, but rather that it is not literature of the upper-case-L variety. And, that it so carefully documents the quotidian life of one Chicano family in Texas that sociologists, historians, and all the rest, ought to pay careful attention. The novel, and an unnamed young protagonist’s year, begin with an old man’s presentiment of his own death and his telling his vision to the boy, his youngest grandson. I do the reader no disservice by here revealing that the old man’s prophecy is fulfilled. These incidents of prophecy and fulfillment describe the linear limits of Martinez’s story. The boy’s first-person narrative begins with the arrival of 1957 or is it the departure of 1956? and the maternal grandfather’s prediction of his own death: “You really want to know what I was thinking about, don’t you?” Grandpa lifted his face to look at me. In the bright light of an overhanging bulb I could still detect a little sadness, but there was something else in the face. A slight, wistful smile cut the edge from the sadness. Horsemen here don’t pass by They pass on . . . “Dying. I was thinking of dying. As old as I am, it’s best to know I can die anytime now. I can be talking to you one minute and I could be dead the next. Just like that,” he said and snapped his fingers. “That’s what it means to be old. . . .” You’d figure, living as long as I have, I’d’ve seen a lot of people die. Well, I haven’t. They say you only need to see one person die in front of you and that’s enough. Your grandmother died right in front of me. You’d figure I’d be ready for my own dying by now. Later, the vigorous old man predicts his own death, telling the boy that he is certain that he will not live to see the next new year. Many contemporary authors, angling for irony, black humor, or even the comic pathos of an unfulfilled prophecy of one’s own death, might have left the old man standing. But this is a traditional novel, straightforward and linear; the reader, even early in the narrative, has a premonition or two of her own. One is that the family Patriarch will leave the story feet first. And more die here than an old man who has witnessed the world move from saddle horses to the ubiquitous pickup truck the sale of the family horses to keep the bankers from the door represents the end of that era. What is dying here, of course, is the rural Texas-Mexicano way of life. And a last generation of Texas Mexicans who had managed to hold and remain on the land that was so much a part of their individual and collective histories. Horsemen here don’t pass by. They pass on and they do so slowly. Probably too slow for many readers who, by the mid-latitudes of the novel, will ready to get on with it. BUT PERHAPS, in fairness to the author, it can be observed that he is writing about a particular stage in life when time was measured differently. Most can remember a time, usually in adolescence, when a summer afternoon seemed like a small eternity. Some loss of innocence, or more likely some moment of reckoning with one’s own mortality, of course, ends all of that. In Schoolland, the adolescent narrator experiences both as he comes to terms with his own awakening sexuality, learns in a moment of accidental voyeurism that his sister has fully come to terms with hers, then confronts the larger question of mortality as he prepares for his grandfather’s death. And most of what occurs here, occurs within the barbed wire fences that separate a family from the rest of the world. Where McMurtry, in similar but leaner earlier works, suggested that the small town was a stultifying place, Martinez sees it as threatening. Out there, beyond the limits of the family farm, are bankers, hustlers, and crooked lawmen, like the Cuero sheriff who would use his good office to recover a pistol that the grandfather had rightly won in a crap game. And beyond Nixon, Smiley, Gonzalez and Wrightsboro is San Antonio, where the dangers of the small town grow geometrically. It is from San Antonio, the big city of the novel, that the narrator’s sister returns, louder and more aggressive, a different woman in different clothing, and makeup. It is in San Antonio that this same but different woman loses her Schoolland husband to drink and its concomitant moral laxity. And it is to San Antonio that an older and disgraced brother repairs with his bride who is seven or eight months pregnant. “Here be Dragons,” the medieval cartographer marked on the map to designate those THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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