Debut nonfiction from the noted Chicano novelist and short-story writer (Woodcuts of Women, 2001, etc.), who gathers essays and occasional pieces written over more than 20 years.
Describing his approach to essay writing as “first-person stupid,” Gilb pretends to offer no definitive answers. A construction worker before turning to writing—a past on which many of these pieces turn—the author has a steady hand and a workmanlike attitude, and though his essays contain few surprising aperçus or dazzling remarks, neither are they showy or self-indulgent. A few pointed remarks note the marginalization of minority writers in the US. Gilb wonders, for instance, why Jonathan Franzen’s celebrated Harper’s canon “couldn’t find a single writer of importance who was not from the historically dominant culture,” observes that the world of New York publishing is far removed from that of a Tejano journeyman such as himself, and takes issue with Southwestern-literature curricula that do not embrace the work of such writers as Rolando Hinojosa and Américo Paredes, to say nothing of younger Chicano authors. In several essays Gilb touches on his experiences as a university instructor of creative writing. He insists, among other things, that he be allowed to teach entry-level composition, because those students haven’t acquired the gloss of smug would-be professionalism that distinguishes MFA candidates, about whom he has little good to say. Using the work of Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and others as springboards, Gilb also explores to good purpose the curious relationship of Mexican-Americans to Mexico, a place that Gilb evokes as something of a wonderland while avoiding the clichés that mark so much writing about the land south of the border.
Sometimes clumsy, sometimes incidental, but distinguished by honesty (“I think some people deserve to get their asses kicked”), bittersweet optimism, and plain good writing, these pages offer Gilb’s fans—and they are many—much to admire.