Friday, April 24, 2015

Luis Alberto Urrea’s enthralling ‘The Water Museum’ leaves me speechless

The stories in Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Water Museum are mostly set in the Southwestern and Western parts of the U.S. Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother and his stories reflect both cultures – and the ways in which they bump up against each other.

Having closed the book a while ago, I have been trying to think of the right words to describe it. “Riveting” is so overused that it’s lost almost all meaning. “Brilliant?” Yes, but not sufficient. “OMG, Dude! Look at you!” comes closer to my reaction.

Michael Shaub was more articulate in describing it: “… [W]hile not all of the 13 stories in Urrea's new collection are dire, they're all realistic and unsparing, as unflinching and hard-hitting as they are beautiful.” NPR (4/8/15)

“Mountains Without Number” is quiet, wistful, nostalgic, sad. New Junction is a dying town, nestled alongside cliffs on which high school
seniors, beginning in 1923, have dared to climb and paint the year of their graduation. But, the high school closed in 2000. Young people have left. The ranches have died out. The oil field roustabouts and the uranium miners are long gone. Tourists don’t come since a new highway bypassed the town.

The same small group of people show up for breakfast each morning at the only café left in town. Frankie, its owner, is struggling to make ends meet with fewer and fewer customers. Urrea perfectly captures the banter of small-town folk who have known each other forever and from whom there are no secrets. They know why Frankie cannot bear to look at the numbers on the cliff, particularly the 77. And they know the town will eventually disappear completely: the numbers have stopped.

Now, even the cliffs are eroding:

…The cliffs don’t count years – years are seconds to them. Flecks of gypsum pushed off the edge by the hot wind. They are the original inhabitants of this valley. And they weren’t always cliffs. They were entire mountains once, until the inevitable carving wind and scouring dust and convulsive earthquakes and cracking ice trimmed them, thinned them, made their famous face appear to oversee the scurrying of those below.

And this, referring to the graduation years painted on the cliffs:

Above Frankie’s house, a slab of numbers wants to fall. Ice has gradually pried it loose from the butte, and it is just a matter of time until it shatters in a storm of rock. Could be today, could be in a hundred years.

Other stories in the collection are decidedly less quiet. In “The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery,” two boys go on an adventure in a stolen canoe. Only one returns. In both “Young Man Blues” and “Amapola,” young men are forced to make terrible life-or-death choices.

A college student who has managed to put a thousand miles between himself and his old neighborhood, is pulled back into an audacious scheme in “The National City Reparation Society.” His homies have figured out that there are so many foreclosed homes that the banks can’t afford to haul away the things left behind by the evicted owners. They have painted a new logo and bank name on a stolen van and need Junior, the college student who can “talk white,” to stand around in a suit and tie with a clipboard as “Mr. Petrucci” while the others break into and haul away the furniture, TVs and other items from the foreclosed houses. Their theory is that no one will pay any attention to a bunch of Mexicans hauling things out of a house if there is a “white man” with a clipboard “in charge.”

My favorite story in the collection is “Taped to the Sky” in which Hubbard, whose wife has left him for her AA sponsor (“They'd called it a thirteenth step”), steals her car and drives aimlessly from Massachusetts to Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and finally Wyoming where, in the middle of nowhere, the car dies. Finally, a truck stops and Don Her Many Horses gets out:

Don raised his hand.
“How,” he said.
He loved saying that to white boys.

When it is determined that it cannot be fixed, Hubbard asks to borrow Horses’ rifle and begins firing it at the car. A pickup truck stops:

“Sir? What’s the deal with this here?”
“Guy’s killing his wife’s car.”
“What she do, step out?”
“Ran, sounds like.”

They watch a while as Hubbard fires one round after another into the vehicle. Then:

“Some days,” Horses said, “it pays to get up.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”

But, lest you think the story ends well for Hubbard, think again.

Luis Urrea is an extraordinary writer and these stories will stay with the reader for a very long time to come.

Luis Alberto Urrea has won numerous awards for his poetry, fiction and essays. The Devil's Highway, his 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize. The Hummingbird's Daughter won the Kiriyama Prize in fiction and has been optioned by Mexican director Luis Mandoki for a film to star Antonio Banderas. Across the Wire was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the Christopher Award. Urea is a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame and is a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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