Ten spare stories about Mexican Americans in El Paso and Santa Fe.
Gilb’s debut collection, The Magic of Blood (1993), won the Pen/Hemingway Award and was a Pen/Faulkner finalist. Here, his magic moments sometimes display sentences of crushed jewels: “Mrs. Hargraves’s tongue was blood red with deep blue veins on its underside.” In that story, “Hueco,” a young man passing himself off as a carpenter rents a cheap, powder-blue room from Mrs. Hargraves and finds himself sleeping in the mattress depression (hueco) where both Mrs. Hargraves’s mother and grandmother died and where he now makes love to Yvette, whom Mrs. Hargraves calls “that horror” when writing him a snappish letter. In “Maria de Covina,” an 18-year-old department store clerk who’s a flashy dresser and pretends to be 21 finds himself dazed by the breasts and perfumes of his fellow clerks while striving to be faithful to his 16-year-old lover; but then the bright surfaces of the store lure him into making easy thefts that undo him. Perhaps the most spellbinding tale is “Mayela One Day in 1989,” which drifts off into stunningly surcharged nightside surrealism in darkest El Paso (“Dark, so dark that the stars glare like streetlights, and the moon hovers as in wilderness. Through this sludge of night we cross dead, metal ribs of train tracks . . .”). The longest and most amusing piece, “Bottoms,” tells of a hetero young Mexican book reviewer at a public swimming pool as he struggles to read a homosexual novel despite multilayered distractions, lost trains of thought, and deep confusion: “It all reads the same, and anywhere I read it’s as though I’d read it before and not at all.”
Those who will find Gilb’s stories slight might ponder this: So what are Cézanne’s apples except daubs that float over the canvas? But marvelous, marvelous daubs.