Everyone in Along These Highways, Rene S. Perez’s fine, slender debut collection of short stories, wants to be someplace else.
These people, mostly young Latinos in small towns across South Texas, are trapped in cycles of poverty, crime and crushed aspirations. Perez’s work succeeds by examining cultures and places that have often been ignored. He also resists (for the most part) melodrama or letting his characters wallow in self-pity.
The first story, “One Last Drive North,” establishes a serious tone and the specter of death and violence, which recurs throughout the book. Alfredo, undertaker of the fictional town of Greenton, embarks on his final drive to San Antonio to pick up a body. These solemn excursions, sometimes with his son, provide Alfredo with some small solace.
Temporary reprieves from their own lives, whether in a van with a corpse, in a familiar bar where nothing ever changes, or in the town’s first Starbucks, are the best these characters can hope for.
Violence and crime play a central role in several of the stories. The characters in “The Art of Making Something Out of Nothing” are impulsive kids trying to pull off a major drug deal. Yet not all the stories are violent. The quiet, tender stories in which Perez explores love and resigned suffering are some of the strongest in the collection.
“Remember, Before You Go” follows Joey and his best friend J.R. the night before Joey ships out to Iraq. The young men drink, horse around, and generally act like nothing matters. The final pages peel away layers of machismo: “Joey felt briefly again J.R.’s tears. J.R.’s embrace wasn’t tight or strong, but secure and unrelenting. … Then J.R.’s hold broke and his right hand rose to Joey’s neck, his thumb and forefinger pushing ever so slightly up into Joey’s hair. J.R. pulled his head back slightly to meet Joey face-to-face.” There are obvious romantic undertones to their goodbye, but this story also reveals two sad, scared boys.
Most of the writing in Along These Highways is clear and lucid, with a modern, intelligent feel. The shaky signs of a debut collection can be most clearly seen in Perez’s dialogue, which can feel wooden. Also, at times the requisite epiphany at the end of the stories can feel forced or obligatory. Yet Perez mostly resists easy conclusions. Just because these characters know they’re in trouble doesn’t mean they’ll be able to change.
Richard Z. Santos’ fiction and reviews have appeared in multiple national publications and websites. He is currently working on his first novel, a literary thriller set in New Mexico.