Books & THE CULTURE Playing the Hammer and Nails BY MICHAEL KING THE MAGIC OF BLOOD By Dagoberto Gilb. 288 pp. New York: THE LAST KNOWN RESIDENCE OF MICKEY ACURA By Dagoberto Gilb. 219 pp. New York: Grove Press. $20. IWAS AMUSED TO discover that Dagoberto Gilb’s The Magic of Blood is the only work of fiction to be listed under the subject heading “working class” in the online catalog of the University of Houston library. Apparently Grove Press decided a gutsy frankness was in order, among . the other subject headings of “Mexican AmericansEl PasoTexasCaliforniaLos Angeles” and so on. Those are indeed a useful list of summary cues for Gilb’s work, which is primarily devoted to the extraordinary lives of ordinary, working-class Mexican Americans living in the greater Southwest, L.A. to Phoenix to El Paso and onward, with even a few brief stops in Austin and Houston. Gilb himself apparently knows the territory well. The promotional bio describes him as “a Chicano of Mexican and German-American descent,” born in Los Angeles and now living in El Paso, adding that he is a “journeyman carpenter” as well as a writer. Even without this confirmation, it is evident in the on-the-job stories that Gilb is writing from direct experience. The sense of physical detail remembered with pride and affection resonates throughout, and particularly in those stories about men working at various construction trades. Another sort of carpentry, Gilb’s written work has been accumulating in journals over the last several years, and The Magic of Blood was first published in 1993 by the University of New Mexico Press. Now Grove has reissued that collection in paperback, to coincide with its publication of Gilb’ s first novel, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acufia. It’s already a sizable body of work, with 26 Michael King is a freelance writer in Houston. stories in the collection, yet none reads like an apprentice pieceone wonders if there is an invisible iceberg of drafts beneath them. Gilb’ s characteristic wryness is reflected in his playful titles: “The Magic of Blood” sounds like it might refer either to a somber ritual or else some racial grandiosity, yet when the phrase finally turns up in a title story, that “magic” is having a relative with a Hollywood address. But that coy, understated connection comes to stand for a grandson’s attachment to the cultural and emotional family of its characters. Gilb’s is a sly, indelible affection, constructed of intimate knowledge. The ineradicable “working class” of these stories is not a socialist realist pageant of heroic rebels, but a truly human comedy of ordinary Californians, Texans, Mexicans, Americans trying to get by. In “Look on the Bright Side” a laid-off laborer fights his landlady, travels across the border, looks for work with a combination of desperation and diffidence. His voice in the opening sentence crisply defines him: “The way I see it, a man can have all the money in the world but if he can’t keep his self-respect, he don’t have shit.” The narrator of “I Danced With the Prettiest Girl” \(a musical carpenter who “plays the hamders into a roadside bar, and enjoys an evening suitable for a honkey-tonk ballad. “Al, in Phoenix,” is an auto mechanic so meticulous that he nearly drives his harried customer to distraction. “Love in L.A.” recounts an ephemeral romance in the middle of the daily non-stop traffic jam. There’s a songlike quality to many of these shorter tales, in that they explore the lyrical possibilities, negative and positive, of highly charged emotional situations: family crises, awkward love affairs, battles on the job. Yet on the whole the mood of the tales and of the book is far from somber; there is the overall relish of Gilb’s prose, and an engaging ability to find what might be called a proletarian transcendence in the bleakest situations. In “Churchgoers,” an overbearing construction foreman named “O.K.” lays workers off the job with impunity until the intimidating reputation of one called “Smooth” stops him shortwith a sacred resonance among the other men, who become an impromptu congregation: Smooth, sent by God as a lesson for O.K. about the danger of messing with a man’s working life, was a messenger for us too. We were all to understand the parable. With a grinning reverence for such a happy ending, we would remember O.K., pale and scared, friendless among his these men, his men, and Smooth somewhere out there crazy, and connect them forever in our memory. Hallelujah. Amen. There is not much of this salvation by epiphany in The Magic of Blood, but when it comes, often from the most unexpected sourceslike the music of Vic Damonethe blessings are welcome. Gilb’s stories have the mournful exultation of the best Tex-Mex songs: the emotions are high, low and sideways in a tangle, and only the music keeps them resolved, as long as the voice resounds. THE LAST KNOWN Residence of Mickey Acufia is a caballo of a slightly different color. As its title hints, this book is an uncertain connection to the world of suspects and police reports, although Mickey Acuila’s world is not exactly outlaw territory, rather a downmarket version of the universe of Kafka’ s Joseph K. The novel is set in El Paso, where Mickey has moved from the west coast, waiting for an uncertain payment from what seems to have been a vaguely criminal enterprise in L.A. He is hardly a high roller; after a short time, the only place he can afford to live is the El Paso YMCA, and that mostly to have a mailbox. Soon he has taken a part-time job at the front deskmostly, he thinks, to keep an eye on the incoming mailand his eyes and responses are ours, as he slowly becomes one of the half-formed denizens of the YMCA, sinking into a vague inanition and uncertainty. Anyone who has ever spent any time in or around a big city Y will recognize the inhabitants of Mickey’s world: primarily men of middle to late age down on their luck, ranging in manner from the heroically dignified to the borderline demented. At first THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17
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