Sunday, February 17, 2013

Stories from the Heart of El Paso

Matt Méndez’s Twitching Heart (Floricanto Press) is an evocative collection of stories set in El Paso that challenges the reader to explore the dynamics of relationships, gender roles, politics, and faith. The prose is simple but true, and the stories are suspenseful often without easy conclusions, which encourage the reader to ponder the layers of meaning in Méndez’s prose.

The interlinked stories begin with the title story, with Chuy and Teresa, father and mother to eleven-year-old Oscar, in a frayed relationship. Chuy has cheated and has been thrown out of the house. Yet Chuy agrees to take care of Oscar while the mother is at work, and agrees again to take Oscar to a tile job at a neighbor’s house, where paralyzed Angélica supposedly performs miracles at the behest of her mother María. The parents’ struggle is partly about their son, what kind of man he should become, whether he should learn skills with his hands, or skills for college. The struggle is also within the father Chuy, his life “silent and a stuck way to be.”

In “Tacos Aztecas,” Israel tries to remember how to show Cristina that he loves her, after homophobic thugs killed their son Artemio behind Ben’s Grocery one year ago. Israel believes it is his fault Artemio died, because he encouraged his son “to change his mind about being a sissy.” A big family never happened for Israel and Cristina. Cristina’s mother worried the family would be cursed, because Artemio was conceived before marriage. History is a crushing burden rather than a fount of pride or possibilities. Cristina is also wracked with guilt, because she encouraged Artemio “to deny who he was,” to hide it from his father, instead of defending Artemio like a Matachin. Revealing their sins to each other, Israel and Cristina might create another chance for themselves.

“El Terrible” is a gem of a story for two reasons: the details are terrific—from the father-son relationship to the basic skills of boxing—and the message about what work should mean, not labor, not the 9-to-5 grind, but work as caring about what you do, that message is so important. Martín is cut from the basketball team, and attends a school of “bored looking teachers and students.” His father José, a bus driver, has other plans for his son: to fight The Deacon’s kid—a star quarterback and “the biggest Mexican” Martín had ever seen—and to teach his son the skills and discipline of boxing.

At school, the promise of the fight takes on a life of its own, and Martín can’t back out. At home, Martín thinks his father is crazy and doesn’t know anything about boxing. But among the highlights of their training, José shows his son how waiting is sometimes better than attacking, the crucial lesson of counter-punching. Martín learns something new about his father, and himself, and why seriousness of purpose transforms the meaning of all work.

The language in Twitching Heart brings the reader to an authentic El Paso: homes are “chantes” and deflowering a young woman is “taking her cherry.” Even the right way to prepare and use thinset for setting floor tile brings you to the ground. Not the literal ground, of course, but that ground of the Chicano working-class too often overlooked in literature. This is the stuff that brings you to a place, and that brings to life a people. This is also what we should never be ashamed to explore, to criticize, and to laugh about: our struggling lives, with their imperfections and idiosyncrasies, our mannerisms and concerns, whether philosophical or stupid.

When we can do that artfully, then we have taken steps to value these lives from El Paso, and simultaneously we have taken steps to understand them and even transcend them. Matt Méndez succeeds on these counts in his admirable debut of stories in Twitching Heart.

(This book review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on February 17, 2013.)