Ashes and Fire

Ito Romo's story collection rages at the incinerated lives of border townies

Crazy action along the Mexican border continues to earn headlines—and in recent weeks it's only gotten crazier. A drug kingpin riding in a truck full of cash and weapons is caught near Nuevo Laredo, opposite Laredo, Texas. An immigration-reform bill being considered in Congress calls for doubling agents, building more walls and sending in the drones. In Yuma, an ultralight aircraft suddenly drops a metal pallet freighted with weed, which is seized by the feds. Indeed, the border is a fascinating arena. It's where political schemes smash into American dreams, leaving those who reside in cities near and around the porous demarcation to pick up the pieces.

Ito Romo doesn't give a shit about any of this. In his dim view, the most disturbing aspects of the border are already in place—namely, the sabotaged hearts, wrecked minds and broken souls currently wandering the streets of Laredo and San Antonio. Forget The Walking Dead. In his new book of short stories, The Border Is Burning, Romo's zombielike protagonists shuffle in and out of meth dens, beat their children out of job-exhausted frustration and imbed infection-prone splinters into their choking bodies while self-administering the Heimlich with table corners. They're moved by dark compulsions, twisted desires and warped ambitions. There's no damage any government or narcotraficante can inflict that these characters haven't already wreaked and endured. It's the brutal truth at the core of Romo's collection, making for a gloomily exhilarating read. I say exhilarating because many of these scenarios fly in the face of P.C. shibboleths—ethnic diversity, free trade, legalization.

I suspect Romo believes in these platitudes and hopes they win out. But his flawed characters and their communication failures suggest Romo doubts progress will occur. Take, for example, opening tale "Baby Money." It's about an unnamed mother whose cardboard-shantytown house in Nuevo Laredo is flooded during a storm. She comes back to clean up and finds a sideshow curiosity from a recent carnival that had poled up on the American side of the border—a two-headed baby in a mayonnaise jar of formaldehyde, washed up on the saturated floor of her home. In the newspaper, the carnival offers money for the item's return. The irony isn't lost on the mom.

As she scraped the last bits of mud from the top of the bricks with a piece of river stick, she thought about what she could get for her children with the 500 American-dollar reward—a clean, safe apartment, small, but clean and safe—the medicines for the little one's asthma—the shoes they so badly needed—a nice meal of cabrito and frijoles borachos at La Principal for everyone. In a rage, she got up and ran to the edge of the river, yelling across to the American side, "I don't want your dammit baby money," over and over again, until she stood there in a daze, hyperventilating in the hot sun and the humidity.

Instead of doing what you or I, or any so-called civilized American would do, she instead improvises a religious ceremony—a baptism/funeral. Romo is careful not to make his character a noble, superstitious caricature. Her act is committed at the expense of her family's future well-being. And he makes it clear, by interspersing first-person scenes of a carnival-going kid haunted and nauseated by having seen the baby days before, that we Americans aren't as tough or rational as we like to claim. With their prejudices and lack of empathy, Romo's characters ensure the gap between those who have and those who don't will only widen.

This is the most fanciful of the stories in Burning. The rest are brutally realistic and compressed and very much in the style of the late Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. I could argue that Rulfo, perhaps because of his screenwriting experience, relies more on plot contrivances. Romo, though, is satisfied to present slices of life. In "Crank," a horny banker agrees to drive a pretty young woman he meets at a bar to meet her dealer. Every moment simmers with miscommunication, misinterpretation. Nothing changes the fact that these two wretches are lost to themselves—one swallowed by a corporate entity, the other chained to addiction. The bad sex is less a byproduct of enslavement and more of a metaphor. It symbolizes the dangerous and permeable border's static lives, the frozen people who seem to be moving but are in fact deeply, irreversibly entombed. A million drug lords and drones won't change things.

The author of a previous noir novel, Romo is a professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. It's amazing that the city's arts program helped finance the writing of this book. The Border Is Burning incinerated any fantasies I'd entertained of visiting the area. And this is the only part of Romo's book that nags: While it stings with hard-bitten truth, Burning also remains just one side of the story. Still, if you admire ultra-realistic fiction in the mold of Raymond Carver, you're going to love this.

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