Before the End, After the Beginning
Grove Press: 194 pp., $24
At a writing program conference in 2008, I saw Dagoberto Gilb speak on a panel. Among the rumpled graduate students and overtired teachers, he looked like a fiftysomething Javier Bardem, long-faced handsome with a confident swagger. He appeared to be anything but the type of person who would suffer a stroke about a year later, but that’s exactly what happened.
“Before the End, After the Beginning” is a collection of stories written mostly after the stroke, and it serves as a reckoning. The first, “please, thank you,” is a gateway into the new status quo: Written from the point of view of Mr. Sanchez, a recent stroke victim, we see a tough guy in a diminished state. He’s obstinate, funny, slowly improving, but he’s lost the use of one hand; the story has no capital letters because he cannot reach the shift key. This also happened to Gilb himself, but autobiographical details don’t say much about how these stories work. They work well.
Gilb, who was raised in Los Angeles and now makes his home in Texas, is known for writing stories of men and masculinity. This book continues that tradition — almost all of these stories are told from the point of view of boys or men — while moving that tradition into a place of transition. Over and over, the characters are in-between. We see Mr. Sanchez only from the time he wakes up from the stroke to when he checks out of the hospital.
In “The Last Time I Saw Junior,” a businessman returns to Austin and gets together with his estranged friend Junior, their bad blood just far enough behind for a quiet reconciliation. The narrator has a bourgeois life, but Junior still moves through the world like the black-sheep son of a congressman he’s been since their youth. The two happily get stoned together — Junior’s still a small-time dealer — and go for a drive, winding up at a redneck bar. The narrator may have once been of this world, but he isn’t anymore; his angry efforts to resist that echo play into Junior’s hands. “You were great,” Junior enthuses. “You were one scary Mexican!” It’s hardly what the narrator wants to hear, or to be seen as.
Perception matters. In “Cheap,” a Mexican American guitarist hires men to paint the interior of his house. The crew’s chief, an Anglo, sees the guitarist as a local cultural figure who gets written up in the paper — and as a boss. “I got a couple men that can knock it out fast,” he tells him. “You won’t mind if they’re Mexican?” The guitarist is stunned by the question’s underlying racism and by its being asked. “You’re asking a Mexican if he minds you hire Mexicans?” Yet when the chief leaves and the crew talks to him, he becomes a Spanish-speaking American, with only tenuous Mexican roots.
Such degrees of identity are often a source of tension, as Mr. Sanchez explains: “like im from mexico and just crossed, not american like them. im from here! ill bet my familys been here longer than yours! I was semper fi,” he thinks in a fury in his hospital bed. That’s the case of many of the collection’s main characters: born American, sometimes taken as Mexican, inhabiting both without romanticizing either. In “Hacia Teotitlán” a sick American man picks a place in Mexico to go where he’s never been, not quite where his family came from. It’s a kind of retooling of Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano": The place is practical and real, full of people living unexotic, day-to-day lives.
Gilb turns to Los Angeles in “Uncle Rock,” a lovely story which was published in the New Yorker. It’s the era of Fernando Valenzuela, when Silver Lake was run-down; Erick, a lonely child, lives there with his single mother. "[A] bicycle ride away were the Asian drugstore and the Armenian grocery store and the corner where black Cubans drank coffee and talked Dodgers baseball.” She’s a knockout and trying hard to find a man who will stick around and help support them, but Erick is resistant to everyone, including the kind, not rich and unremarkable Uncle Roque. When he takes them to a baseball game, it fails to impress Erick, a devoted fan, because it’s a gesture meant to do just that. Yet Erick learns something at the baseball game — and while learning something is kind of an old-fashioned move in fiction, it’s also deeply satisfying.
A couple of stories are compact exercises in character and voice, a few intense pages of joy that begin on L.A.'s freeways, or a story in which misfortune is seen third-hand. But even with these and the first story’s lack of capitalization, Gilb is not pushing stylistic boundaries. He’s simply telling good stories: of men who are both Mexican and American, who are cultured and uncouth, who look at wealth from the outside and, occasionally, from within. A student may make something of himself; a poor young father might fall through the cracks; an older man might discover something new. They are formed by forces outside themselves, but they are not finished yet.