The Pushcart Prize–winning memoirist and poet returns to the barren New Mexico landscape, troubled families, outlaw gangs, and despairing orphanages of his youth.
After recounting his nightmare childhood and criminal past in his superb A Place to Stand (2001), Baca offers a debut collection of eight stories, tales like “Matilda’s Garden,” about a Hispanic farmer, mourning his dead wife, who suffers a violent accidental death that may also have been a miracle. In the title piece, the man’s squabbling children, tempted by the seductions of mainstream American romance and security, nearly destroy their entire village when one of them sells a portion of the farm—until all is saved, once more in a miraculous fashion. In “The Three Sons of Julia,” Baca again mines the theme of antagonistic siblings—one criminally violent and proud of his Hispanic roots, the other educated and shamelessly aspiring to the gringo lifestyle—who drive their mother into a drunken delirium during a wretched family reunion. A Catholic orphanage makes for moments of heartbreaking sadness in “The Valentine’s Card” and for sadistic menace in “Runaway.” Baca is clearly searching for a meaning in the overwhelming cruelty and hardship his characters suffer, whether from their grim addictions to sex, alcohol, and greed, or from an unseen, possibly supernatural hand that guides them to a brutal, optimistic truth. Thus, when three vicious sociopaths are suddenly freed from prison in “Enemies,” the hatred that kept them alive behind bars turns into mutual respect. The only weak entry is “Mother’s Ashes,” a heavy-handed noir vignette of a debauched lawyer hoping to extort sex from a former client. Most impressive is “Bull’s Blood,” a gritty redemption tale about a burned-out, 40-year-old musician and a 20-year-old rodeo sweetheart who realize they love each other after enduring the gory spectacle of a bullfight.
Vivid, horrific, visionary, disarmingly sentimental tales: let’s hope for a novel to follow soon.