A collection of tough fiction set in the poverty-stricken streets of southern Colorado.
Relles “Manito” Ortiz (“the only Ortiz worth a damn”) is one of a crew of “little mocos” in foster care, living in Huerfano County, Colorado, and intermittently earning their keep in the onion fields of New Mexico. Manito’s journey from ragamuffin street kid to damaged adult is peppered with digressions into the lives of others in the ragtag community: his cousin Bea, who, in the words of her aunt, will likely end up either “dead or pregnant”; Ray “Cornbread” Vigil, Bea’s estranged father, a career criminal and local legend; Neto, Manito’s alcoholic wastrel of an uncle; and Manito’s grandfather Santiago, whose determination to hold his extended family together is threatened when he beats down a razor-packing drunk. Their stories interweave over decades: there are births, backyard weddings, and deaths from natural and unnatural causes. Grinding poverty, stretches in prison, and military service are perennial events, and the struggle to rise above the poverty line is more often than not stymied by circumstance and self-destructive behavior, with happy endings defined more by stability than status. Jaramillo’s (The House of Order, 2011) second novel in stories builds on his debut collection, and fans of that work will likely find much to enjoy here. His writing is crisp, concise, and realistic, with a gimlet eye for the details of his characters’ grim existences. This sense of focus doesn’t extend to the wider structure, however; overall, the work feels less like a novel in stories than it does a collection of flash fiction, prone to digressions without resolution. Some readers may struggle to see beyond its litany of misery and abuse or pine for a novel in which Manito and Bea are the focal characters instead of lost in a sea of other stories. Then again, its sprawling, excursive style, similar to that of the raconteurs it portrays, may be entirely the point.
A meandering, unrelentingly bleak read but one which rewards patient readers with an authentic slice of the hard life.