Friday, June 12, 2015

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s ‘Barefoot Dogs’ explores the emotional consequences of violence

Barefoot Dogs, the debut collection of eight stories by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, examines the effect of the drug wars in Mexico from a less than usual approach. As David Garza wrote in a Kirkus Review interview (3/9/15):

In the minds of many, there is a universal immigrant story: that of a disenfranchised laborer who risks life and limb in search of work in the U.S. In his debut collection of stories, Barefoot Dogs, Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, a Mexican immigrant himself, explores an entirely different type of immigrant class: the wealthy and the elite who are forced into exile by the threat of death and violence.

“The difference with the new wave of immigrants is the violence,” Ruiz-
Camacho explained to Garza. “They cannot go back. For a group of people who are used to running the country, this is quite unexpected.”

The stories in Barefoot Dogs are closely linked. Jose Victoriano Arteaga, the family patriarch, is the father of six children, five of them adults and legitimate; a sixth, still young, is the child of his mistress. When Victoriano is kidnapped and murdered, his body returned to the family piece by piece, a “kidnapping expert” advises them all to flee Mexico immediately. “He said no one in Mexico could guarantee our safety anymore.” They scatter to Austin, New York City, Palo Alto and Madrid. Each of the stories examines the impact the murder has on the lives of Victoriano’s children and grandchildren. Ruiz- Camacho explained:

I wanted to explore the emotional consequences of violence…I wanted to see what happened to the victims of this violence every day, after the media has left them and their stories are no longer newsworthy.

The first story in the collection, “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring,” lets us see the privilege the family takes for granted before the patriarch’s disappearance. Fernanda, Victoriano’s granddaughter, is planning a summer in Italy with her friends. To prepare, they are taking private Italian lessons and deciding which exclusive shops they will visit. At a party they attend, they hear a horrendous story about a young woman who hops into a taxi in Mexico City, only to be forced to empty her accounts at ATMs and then beaten, raped and humiliated by the driver and two thugs working with him. The girls realize that they have taken taxis and subways in many other countries but never in Mexico.

When Fernanda returns home, the maid tells her that her parents have gone to their grandfather’s house: “It is the year all the members of my family will end up fleeing Mexico, following Grandpa’s disappearance, but at this point I don’t know for sure what’s happened to him.”

The younger children are not told what has precipitated the sudden moves. In “Okie,” Bernardo, another of the grandchildren, is thrust into the third grade in Palo Alto where he has no friends and is teased by classmates. Each night, he leaves his bed and seeks comfort, not from his parents but from Josephina, the maid who has effectively raised him and who has accompanied the family in their flight. Every night he begs her to tell him why they have left Mexico and cannot go home; every night she ducks the question.

“Better Latitude” is told by Victoriano’s mistress, the mother of his youngest son. She and the boy wait night after night for him to call or appear, not knowing what has happened to him. The boy imagines conversations with, and visitations from, his now dead father. In the title story, “Barefoot Dogs,” one of Victoriano’s adult sons is a new father and terrified of holding or looking at the infant, perhaps because he knows he cannot protect him from every terror in life. He asks to have a bodyguard assigned to his family before they even leave the hospital after the birth. He, too, later imagines a visit from his father who offers reassurance.

Two of the stories are especially interesting from a technical point of view. In “I Clench My Hands into Fists and They Look Like Someone Else’s,” two teenaged siblings have been sent to New York City to stay by themselves in an apartment owned by a friend of the family until their parents can join them. They amuse themselves by popping the pills they find in the owner’s bathroom. The story is written entirely in dialogue.

“Deers” is told by a young Mexican woman who has accompanied one of the families to Austin and has since been fired. The entire story is one very long sentence interrupted very occasionally by a semi-colon.

The stories in Barefoot Dogs are so closely linked that they could easily be classified as a novella. I would have liked a longer work, one that explored their lives in Mexico and their relationship to each other more fully. But this seems like an ungrateful quibble. Better to be glad for the book we have been given: “A nimble debut that demonstrates not a singular narrative voice but a realistic chorus of them.” (Kirkus Reviews, 3/10/15).

For the last eighteen years, Antonio Ruiz-Camacho has worked as a journalist in Mexico, Europe, and the U.S. A 2009 Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a 2014 Dobie Paisano Fellow in Fiction, Ruiz-Camacho earned his MFA from the New Writers Project at the University of Texas in Austin. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Story Quarterly, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere. He is from Toluca, Mexico, and lives in Austin, Texas, with his family.

No comments:

Post a Comment