Book Quote:

“The last time Ramiro Areyzaga was in Mexico was so long ago it was more like a fairy tale. . . A place of lush green shade, both a forest of trees and a jungle of huge waxy palm leaves, and a zocalo of marionettes and dancers, musicians and painters, with toys and balloons for the little ones and shawls for his grandparents. And of course the church, like none he’d ever seen, all the cool stone space, and God – which he never got over, so much so it stayed inside him, quietly, the rest of his life, like it was the word Mexico itself.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (NOV 9, 2011)

Dagoberto Gilb’s latest book, Before the End, After the Beginning, although a slight collection, is loaded with insight and humor. It’s a book about identity, about the tension between limiting factors outside our control– our race, our class, our gender – and our complexity as individuals.

The collection opens with a disorienting story, “please, thank you,” about a Mexican-American man struggling to regain control of his body after a stroke. Uncomfortably dependent on the hospital staff, forced to face his physical vulnerabilities with tasks as mundane as taking a shower or balancing a checkbook, his psychological vulnerabilities also come to the fore. All he sees around him are minorities persecuted by a white majority trying to keep them down. Everyone from his adult children to the hospital staff shake their head, bemused by his racial conspiracy theories, but as his body heals, so do the lifelong wounds of prejudice, at least enough that he can advise Erlinda, a Mexican janitor, to rise above the ignorance around her so that the wounds she endures on account of her race won’t fester and leave deep and putrid scars.

While sometimes, an illness forces us to recede into ourselves, often times, it’s through our relationship with others that we struggle with undesirable aspects of our identity. “The Last Time I saw Junior,” a hot-headed Mexican must face his former self when an old buddy comes around and manipulates him (once again) into helping him. In “Cheap,” a Mexican musician is forced to face both his fiscal and emotional frugality when the pursuit of an unfairly low bid by a local contractor causes him to face the exploitation of other Mexicans, who he tries to help.

“Willows Village,” explores the other side of help – dependency. When Guillermo moves from El Paso to Santa Ana in search of a job that will support his young family, he has little choice but to stay with his aunt, his mother’s sister, Maggy, who, according to his mother, was “an all-spoiled this and did-all-bad-that” who got away with murder on account of her looks. Maggy lives in a tract housing development, called Willows Village, with a kitchen “loaded up like a mall gourmet store” and a bedroom as “beautiful as any hotel.”  Her husband is gone for weeks at a time on business and so Maggy manages her loneliness by keeping an unfortunate friend, Lorena. In exchange for room and board, Lorena does the errands Maggy doesn’t want to do and accepts Maggy’s capricious generosity with a smile and appropriate gratitude. While Guillermo pounds the pavement in search of a job, his dependency on Maggy and his mother, on Gabe, the man who employs him for a time, frustrates him, and with the wine always flowing at the house, it’s inevitable that tensions and resentments will come to a head, exposing the line between need and reliance.

Gilb explores the fraught dynamics of attractive women financially dependent on men through the eyes of the males who actually love them. In “Blessing,” a young man sets out to visit his high-school sweetheart, now married to a much-older man. Sexually unsatisfied, she visits him during the night, which prompts him to flee her house in the morning, putting him in the wrong place at the wrong time. In “Uncle Rock,” a young boy deals with having a mother who is beautiful enough to attract restaurant owners and engineers, but not white enough to be marriageable. With a precocious understanding of the sexual marketplace, he deflects a professional baseball player’s advances in favor of a man with modest means who worships the ground his mother walks on.

Perhaps our most poignant search for identity is in the face of death. In “Hacia Teotitlan,” a dying man journeys home to a Mexico that he remembers as a fairy tale with glorious churches. He rents a room that is too small for his body, and vows to discontinue his medication, resigning himself to dying with the same resignation of a stray dog. While he may not have found what he was looking for, he walks away with new ways of expressing his innermost desire – to be well.

Each of these stories is a wonderful meditation on identity and the pain we endure in the struggle to create ourselves. In 2009, Dagoberto Gilb suffered a stroke; these stories are the product of his recovery. Although judging from the simple power of this book, I’d say it definitely marks a return to form.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 5 readers
PUBLISHER: Grove Press (November 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Dagoberto Gilb
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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November 9, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Humorous, Latin American/Caribbean, Mexico, Short Stories, Texas, y Award Winning Author

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