A clutch of well-turned stories filled with characters concerned with the limits of their personalities.
“The Ballad of Rocky Rontal,” a brief, early story in Alarcón’s (City of Clowns, 2015, etc.) second collection, turns on a question that recurs throughout the book: what circumstances make us who we are, and how much can we change? Rocky grows up in an abusive home and murders a man as an adult, but after 32 years in prison he returns to a “world that’s disappointingly familiar,” and Alarcón is deliberately vague about how much he is (or can be) rehabilitated. Similarly, “República and Grau” turns on a 10-year-old boy who’s put to work by his father to help a blind man beg on the streets, playing with the question of how much looking like a beggar actually makes him one. And in the closing “The Auroras,” a man takes a one-year leave from his university job and stumbles into a relationship with a married woman; after lying about being a doctor, a host of other questions rises up about what he can make himself into (a violent person, for one), culminating in a twist ending that shows how liberating your sense of self can be a kind of entrapment. The tone throughout the stories is flat and nonjudgmental, though sometimes you can sense a smirk in Alarcón’s prose about the predicaments: in “The Bridge” a blind couple falls “steadily, lovingly, to [their] death[s]” off a bridge broken in an accident, and a man pretending to be his brother in “The Provincials” takes a detour into the format of a comic play. But the overall message is that we mess with our personalities at our peril.
A smart and understated collection that puts some new twists on old-fashioned identity crises.