Tijuana Gold

'Nobody's Son' is a mongrel masterpiece.

By Jim Carvalho

Nobody's Son: Notes From an American Life, by Luis Alberto Urrea (UA Press). Cloth, $19.95.

America--there's a Mexican in the woodpile.

--from Nobody's Son

AND THAT MEXICAN is Luis Alberto Urrea. Or is it? Urrea, the award-winning novelist-poet-journalist, is a mutt. His mother, the descendent of Virginia slaveholders, grew up in Staten Island, New York. Her family did business with John Steinbeck and drank beer with Albert Einstein. The author's father was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Sinaloan ("my father was whiter than my mother," Urrea writes), a federal government official and ladykiller who held less aristocratic Mexicans in contempt. Luis Urrea was born in Tijuana; the family moved to San Diego when he was 3.

Books Urrea tags himself Chicano. An odd choice, perhaps, considering his pedigree. By the end of Nobody's Son, however, readers will understand exactly why he chooses to label himself the way he does. And why he understands that any ethnic label doesn't do him justice.

Strictly autobiographical, Nobody's Son is a collection of seven pieces of non-fiction rendered in Urrea's inimitably raucous style. At turns hysterical and heartbreaking, all of the pieces are interesting; and two--"Tijuana Wonderland" and "Sanctuary"--are marvelous. Two others stand out because they stick out: "Down the Highway with Edward Abbey" is perhaps the best-written story in the collection, but its content doesn't fit the book's theme as well as the others. "Leaving Shelltown" fits the book's theme nicely, but is written as a series of journal entries and seems out of place stylistically. But I nit-pick. This a wonderful, thoughtful collection.

Urrea's bright, witty style makes me think of José Antonio Burciaga (Drink Cultura, Spilling the Beans). Both authors use a conversational style, but Urrea's a better writer. Where Burciaga's cadences are awkward, Urrea's are mellifluous:

When I was a boy, Tijuana was a place of magic and wonder, a place of dusty gardens laden with fruit, of pretty women, dogs, food, music. Everywhere you looked, there were secrets and astonishments. And everyone was laughing.

I know nothing about Urrea's writing process, but his sentences and paragraphs read as if they flow naturally to the page in longhand, with little effort and little revision.

Readers who've given up on authors who write from an ethnic perspective because of the prevailing whininess in so much of that literature will find Urrea's writing refreshing. Sure, he muddies the silly English-only argument, reverses the blame in some instances of aggression, and isn't above insulting the physical appearance of some of the people with whom he disagrees. But neither is he afraid to laugh at himself, criticize "his people," or break from the orthodoxy of victim ideology. In "Down the Highway," (a version of which was first published in the Tucson Weekly, November 30, 1995) Urrea is driving Abbey's car from Tucson to Denver and attempting to come to grips with Abbey's provocative statements about Mexicans.

Abbey's comments "stuck a knife in my heart," Urrea says. But he still admires Abbey's writing and even sees some of the old curmudgeon in himself. Fellow author and friend Rudolfo Anaya, on the other hand, tells Urrea, "I hope you have four flat tires in the desert. I hope the car catches fire. I hope it burns to the ground." Anaya doesn't understand Edward Abbey. Urrea does.

Parts of Nobody's Son inform Urrea's earlier work. The author's fine 1994 novel, In Search of Snow, contains a passage about the holocaust that seems to come out of nowhere. The new book fills us in on why the passage is important to Urrea: It's based on his mother's war experiences as a Red Cross volunteer, experiences that had a profound effect on her and her son.

In Nobody's Son, we also learn that In Search of Snow's magical García household, so loving and boisterous and wondrous that it seems too good to be true, is based on the adopted household the author grew up in. After living in such an environment, it's not so hard to see why Urrea, a white boy of mixed parentage, would choose to call himself Chicano. Shoot. If I'd grown up there, I'd call myself Chicano, too. TW

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