Twelve stories from poet and memoirest Rodriguez (Always Running, 1993, etc.) paint a disturbing portrait of East Los Angeles, but fail to populate it with characters who transcend the political sensibility they seem to emerge from.
In “My Ride, My Revolution,” a limo driver crosses back and forth over the line between rich and poor while reading the Bible and Stephen King in his spare time; “Shadows” is an unformed depiction of the horror of alcoholism in a Hispanic family; the tough life of gang girls begins “Las Chicas Chuecas,” but we quickly sneak behind the facade to witness the fragile lives of innocents; “Boom, Bot, Boom” reveals the adventures of an ex-con trying to right his life; “Mechanics” is a clumsy tale of love, labor and loss; “Oiga” offers a Mexican-Indian woman’s bleak meditation on the love and life she’s capable of; and “Miss East L.A.” is a miniature mystery about a young man who wants to be a scribe finding himself conveniently given a job as a feature writer on the trail of a local murder. Rodriguez is skillful at rendering the aura of East LA, but too often shoots for a kind of scope that he has yet to master. In the scenes and exchanges that want to be the heart of the collection, there’s a failure of execution: the people never quite become characters, and the stories fall short of the literary. The only previously published piece (“Sometimes You Dance With a Watermelon”) has appeared widely, as both fiction and nonfiction, but despite its effort to assign nobility to difficult lives, its own political will more clearly formed than the characters it tries to defend. One wishes Rodriguez step back and look again at these lives, from the distance where East LA appears like a “skid row of lost dreams and spent realities, of fury—this is a riot town, after all—and acid rain.”
Misfires orbiting a worthwhile theme.