A mother lies dying. Is she really sick? Will she survive? Is the writer by her side a son, a man or merely another doomed citizen? These are the questions that fuel the new novel "Tomb Song's" rollicking, surprising and deft flurry of chapters, some as short as a paragraph, others spooling along for lush pages of artfully rendered set pieces. Mexico's Julián Herbert, known previously mostly as a poet, is now — with this playful experiment of memoir, fiction, humor and tragedy — among the more interesting and ambitious prose stylists of our time.
"I dance," the narrator's mother tells her young son, when in fact she works as a prostitute. That burden isn't easy for a young Herbert (narrator or author — the lines are blurred), and as a survival tactic, he soon adopts his mother's mercenary relationship to the truth.
Bouncing from the cancerous agony of the bedside to their shared slum past — the night the cardboard blew off the roof of their grim little home, the unlikely success of a brothel's soccer team, a parade of bad men doing their best to be half fathers — the narrator explains how his world steadily orients around sex, and the idea that this most taboo of subjects is also our most delicious and important pursuit. How could something so natural and personal feel revolutionary, powerful, worth pursuing, but also dangerous? It's what leaves his mother beaten, broken, but their bellies full. So better to bend the truth.
Years later, by her bedside, the narrator remains really, really mad at this woman. Why couldn't he have a better life? But within his anger are moments of awareness. One of the rare times the family rented a proper house (rather than a brick shed or shared bedroom at a brothel), they planted a small plot of carrots "that never grew." But something magical happens anyway. Evicted from this house, the boy is allowed by the police to remove just two books before they lock up. "Literature has always been generous with me," he writes. "If I had to go back to that moment, knowing what I know now, I'd choose the same books."
What luck. If mothers let us down, maybe literature is enough. Beyond all the power and poetry of a reckoning with poverty is the book's sly and wonderful handling of the literary world, from the narrator's assignment to write about a slain union boss to his boozy, opium-fueled trip to Havana with a writers' conference. In these moments, Herbert is at his surest and funniest, blurring the line between fact and fiction, between the idea of story as something we inherit versus the idea that any good narrative is merely a record of invention itself. Also: Cocaine can be really fun.
Especially in the Cuba scenes, it's hard not to think of another poet-memoirist, Ben Lerner, whose first work of prose, "Leaving the Atocha Station," shares much with "Tomb Song," including an ability to make us admire and despise our hapless narrator at the same time — he's not really gonna cheat on his wife with that lady spouting Lenin, is he? — while subtly reorienting, for instance, how we might understand the post-Castro elite's pursuit of joys, despite all the obvious reasons for unhappiness.
Appearing only sparingly, the narrator's wife emerges as a wonderful counterpoint to dying mother and bitter son, because she loves them both, and this pure feeling keeps us reading. Good thing too, because the book is propulsive and sly and studded with memorable moments that feel irresistibly wise.
A few favorites: After a hangover, "the light of the real world feels brutal: coarse powdered milk made atmosphere." Suffering in the morning: "It's not reality that makes a person cynical. It's the near impossibility of getting any sleep in cities." The simplicity of sitting outside: "Cynicism requires rhetoric. Sitting in the sun doesn't."
Family matters aside, wisdom shelved for later, it's government incompetence and the violent power of the state that hang over "Tomb Song" like a dark cloud. The Mexican government's failure, after all, is why his mom had no choice but to turn tricks. The narcos sever heads. A hospital is a place to stand in line all day for a dose of cancer medicine. The president is an idiot. So, probably, is the next one. He's only able to write at all because of grants and sponsorships.
No diatribe or bitter complaint, Herbert's ambitious novel is the pleasing work of a high stylist having fun, loving life, making a good story despite a country's miseries and his own. "So long as I have the will," he writes, "I can go out, negotiate friendship, ask for plain speech, buy things at the drugstore, carefully count change. So long as I can type, I can give form to what I don't know and, in that way, be more human." It feels like a blueprint for us all.
Our mothers will die. Our country will let us down. The next president will probably be an idiot too. The future contains as many or at least as final a set of ways to die as the past. All we can do, even if our mother was a prostitute, is hope she lives long enough to meet our daughter, if we have one, and then to try our best to love both. As Herbert writes, to love is to agree to bury someone — or indeed to be buried by them. "I am," the narrator whispers to his wife toward the end, "the one who will cover your face in that hour."
Deuel is a writer in Los Angeles and author of the memoir "Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East."
Julián Herbert, translated by Christina MacSweeney