My first exposure to Villaseñor was in an issue of the San Diego Writer’s Monthly (which also carried a chapter of my memoir). Subsequently, I read with sympathy an interview in which he described a falling-out he had with his publisher. But even though he’s a local writer, I regret to say that this is the first book of his that I’ve read.
The regret is because the book is so thoroughly enjoyable. These are a series of short, easily-read stories that, given the Old California setting of some, bring Steinbeck to mind. Alternatively, given the primitive Mexico setting of others, and the many scarcely-credible events, I thought briefly of Carlos Castaneda or Garcia Márquez. Comparisons go only so far, however. Based on having read just this one book, I’d say Villaseñor has a voice all his own.
Following each story, he steps in with a page or two of text in which he assures his readers that, despite what common sense might have us believe, the events are all true: There actually was a horse who climbed over fences like a human. As confirmed by a “snakeologist” at the zoo, there really is a snake that can rear up and attack someone on horseback. And if you can accept that, perhaps you’ll also believe him when he says that people truly are stars such as we see in the sky. For the most part, these explanatory bridges add to the story, but occasionally they feel a little heavy-handed, addressing the reader with advice like “always keep an open mind and keep going, for you never know when today’s catastrophe will be tomorrow’s miracle.”
Every story is at least somewhat miraculous. My favorite is the last one, which has the author’s father, as a just a very little kid, playing chicken with his buddies to see who could wait the longest before jumping on a moving train and then (since he waited too long) jogging alone down the tracks, across the desert, for a day and a night, determined to catch up with that train and rejoin his family. As with all the others, it’s based on what the author has been told, but his description makes it viscerally real.
I understand Villaseñor’s desire to connect with his cultural roots, and as such this book is a marvelous success. I might quibble with his suggestions that Americans in particular (but probably anybody who’s not a primitive Indian living in a remote mountainous area) is pitifully benighted. I might work myself up over the idea of an author living in the U.S. and enjoying the opportunities it affords while suggesting that we are all so clueless and disconnected from reality. I mean, quite likely we are, but it’s not as if throwing everything away and moving en masse to the back country would improve matters.
Despite that impulse, it’s not the correct response to this book. I enjoyed it far more than most. It came along at a good time, too, as I’d begun to feel that I was reading more and enjoying it less. These stories are truly delightful, wondrous, touching, and they have not only been a pleasure to read but have also shown a light on the process by which family history can be turned into literature. In that regard, there’s even perhaps a resemblence to Eudora Welty!
Stephen Gallup is the author of a memoir, What About the Boy: A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son. He has an eclectic interest in books and authors, and reviews books as part of his passion for the written word. He blogs at fatherspledge.com.
The Reviewer invites your comments below.