Sixteen cleverly varied short stories, separated by mostly free-verse interludes, form a broad image of modern Mexico in the latest fiction from that country’s most prominent writer (The Eagle’s Throne, 2006, etc.).
As its title allusion to Tolstoy promises, many of these pieces are concerned with relations among parents and children, spouses and siblings. “A Family Like Any Other” explores the stunted lives, graced only by sustaining illusions of accomplishment and empowerment, of a department-store salesman forced into early retirement, his romantic dreamer wife (a former bolero singer) and their career-challenged, embittered stay-at-home adult children. There follows a plaintive “Chorus of the Street Gossips,” channeling the plea of an unborn child not to be born into poverty and misery. Thus it goes, as Fuentes examines the ordeals endured by a crime impresario (“The Mariachi’s Mother”) who cannot divert her son from following her path; a powerful military commander whose own sons work for powers he helped overthrow (“The Armed Family”); a pair of male lovers whose contented union reflects the social changes of several decades (“The Gay Divorcée”); and a sexually adventurous woman who confesses to her present lover her enslavement by a brutal egotist (“The Secret Marriage,” perhaps intended as an allegory of Mexico’s ongoing vulnerability to opportunists and tyrants). The stories’ range is both impressive and somewhat predictable, as we keep meeting characters whose passions appear to confirm generic clichés about Latinos’ volatile emotions and ingenuous submission to the demands of a religion that counsels endless patience. Still, even when plots seem unoriginal, Fuentes earns our attention with vivid dialogue and detail.
A lesser work than such fully achieved recent fictions as The Years with Laura Diaz and The Eagle’s Throne, but of real interest as a Latin American little brother to John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., the book that may have inspired it.