Men struggle with old demons, attractive women and a persistent racism in the latest collection from Gilb (The Flowers, 2008, etc).
It’s a cliché to compare a short-story writer with a clean-cut prose style to Raymond Carver. But Gilb’s stories do recall the minimalist master, and not just because of their trim sentences (or because Gilb knew Carver). Like Carver, Gilb focuses his stories on working-class men who are slowly awakening to their ineptitude at relationships, who have a hard time shaking off old addictions, and who can’t quite move their careers out of neutral. What distinguishes Gilb is his deft handling of race: The heroes in these 10 sharp stories are mostly Mexican-American men who weather plenty of prejudice. “Cheap” exemplifies Gilb’s interests, centering on a talented but ailing musician who uncomfortably referees a rift between two Latino painters in his home and their bullying, sanctimonious gringo boss. Manliness is a consistent theme, most strongly in “The Last Time I Saw Junior,” in which an old friend intrudes on the narrator by dragging him back into the world of macho drug dealers. Yet these men are easily undone by a provocative woman or two. In “Willows Village,” the best story of the batch, a down-on-his-luck family man moves in with his aunt, whose wealth and attractiveness unsettle him; Gilb skillfully generates erotic tension without making the story comic or perverse, and the ending underscores the connections between greed and lust. Gilb suffered a stroke in 2009, and the collection’s opener, “please, thank you,” seems to address that event, recalling the narrator’s recovery and firmly establishing the key elements of his stories: family, prejudice and what’s required to overcome a sense of helplessness.
Gilb gets excellent mileage from simple elements. Though the men in these stories have common concerns, each feels distinct and alive.