In Ortega-Medina’s debut short story collection, characters are consumed by their fascinations with sex, death, and inescapable fate.
The unnamed Japanese narrator in the opening story, “Torture by Roses,” takes a job working for millionaire Ikeda Yataro in Tokyo. All he has to do to become Ikeda’s heir is deliver meals and correspondence. But what Ikeda takes from the narrator is far greater: he wants to teach him how to hate, which would, for starters, entail calling off his engagement with his fiancee. The narrator, who’s told to ask no questions, is a prisoner of sorts, which makes him akin to other characters throughout the book. In “Cactuses,” for example, an aspiring writer meets an older, well-known author who’s resigned to his inevitable, imminent death: “I just know,” he tells the young man, that it will happen soon. In “Star Party,” a man named Isaac is granted temporary asylum in the United States and can’t leave the country until his case is decided, and in “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them,” Sadie Hunter, a battered woman, gets no help from her mother or a priest. Ortega-Medina’s tales are predominantly somber and often dabble in the macabre, as when lonely Susan Foltz, in “After the Storm,” finds a dead body on the beach and drags it back to her lighthouse home. In “Invitation to the Dominant Culture,” a man named Guillermo Fausto Perez III discovers sex as well as a disturbing, kinky side of his personality. There’s definitely poignancy in these stories, however, as characters search for identity, be it religious or sexual; for example, Marc Sadot, in the two-part story “An Israel State of Mind,” hopes that his Israel trip will help him in “ridding himself” of his desires, but instead it reunites him with the man he loves. The surprisingly amusing “The Shovelist” is a bright spot among gloomier themes, as new neighbors Jake and Ronny find it difficult to say no to elderly Guillaume’s offer to be their snow-shoveler. Ortega-Medina’s prose is elegant and potent throughout, with visceral passages bathed in lyricism: “Down below, the ocean continued to vomit forth waves of foam and debris on to the beach.”
Stylish, sincere tales that go to dark, sometimes-uncomfortable places.