Down but Not Out

Dagoberto Gilb's first post-stroke story collection shows that his abilities are undiminished

There's a passel of local college students who know essayist and short-story writer Dagoberto Gilb as the guy who showed them that writing could be an act of pumping their fists.

On their first day of freshman composition, they were told to produce a writing sample. It should be a rant, they were told—something that ticked them off. Then the instructor would throw an example on the overhead.

It was an excerpt from "This Writer's Life," from Gilb's 2003 collection Gritos. The passage recounts Gilb's experience applying to teach creative writing at the University of Arizona. During the application process, he led a graduate seminar that discussed a student story involving some hip, young white guys who visit a brothel in "Tiajuana." In his essay, Gilb grumbles that no students in the class were Hispanic; no one pointed out that the name of the border town was not "Aunt Juana," but "Tijuana." And then he rants about disrespect for Hispanics.

To honor the copyright, his rant won't be quoted here. But know that after students read what Gilb wrote about the ethnic makeup of UA creative-writing students; about the UA itself (smack in the middle of "Occupied Mexico"); and about Anglo attitudes toward Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican-American women in particular, those freshmen would start writing and not hold back.

It's good to see that in his first collection since he suffered a stroke in 2009, Gilb is still doing some literary fist-pumping.

Before the End, After the Beginning is washed by a sense of the shortness of life. That's compounded by how it's book-ended. The opening story—"please, thank you"—feels autobiographical. Recovering from a stroke, the narrator struggles to speak, to move his paralyzed side, to perform basic functions. "Home" has shrunk to the confines of his bed. The story's written in lower case, in fragments lightly punctuated: "im not getting soft on the place or any of them," he says. "its like this typing though. which I hate. i hate the mistakes I have to fix, the waste of time, the enthusiasm they drain. you don't see them because of me. i make them right. ... i could make caps. not easy, bt I could. and apostropke.s. see those mistakes? im noy fixing them to show my point."

The narrator's down, but not out.

In the final story, anger has eased into philosophical acceptance. In "Hacia Teotitlán," an aging Mexican American goes to Oaxaca. He's not well. But he's settling into a daily routine, establishing relationships and appreciating simple essentials. "This," he decides, "is happiness, living on, not ending."

The intervening stories feature characters from earlier stages in life, struggling as Mexican Americans in the contemporary United States.

Some, such as "Willow Village," we've seen before and are glad to reread. It's both entertaining and painful to watch the naïve young El Paso construction worker try to turn himself into a Southern California used-car salesman.

Issues of gritty reality have always appeared in Gilb's work, but two new stories from boys' perspectives give them particular poignancy. In "Uncle Rock," the 11-year-old narrator senses, but can't articulate, the strains of his single mother raising a child in the U.S., longing for a Mexico left behind, and bedding a series of men she hopes will give her stability. An event at a baseball game gives the passive boy a chance to step up, and you applaud what he does.

More evocative and fragile is the three-page story "His Birthday." Problems of economics, acculturation, marital strain and urban violence swirl around the central character, a boy turning 6. Gilb sets it up so that the reader sees what's swirling, but in the boy's bubble of innocence is a possibility of hope.

Illness has not diminished this writer's abilities; it might, moreover, have quickened his compassion. But his photo on the dust jacket is sobering. Rather than the full-face, bring-'em-on portraits of the past, this one poses Gilb in front of a dark wall. He's in profile, barely glancing at the camera. He's not smiling. From appearances, the camera might have caught him in a final farewell.

Fortunately, however, the Internet can bring you current. On Facebook, you can find a more recent photo of Gilb. He's grinning, standing unaided with novelist Rudolo Anaya and Librotraficante Tony Diaz, who "smuggled" Tucson Unified School District-banned books into Arizona last month. Two of those books were by Gilb. I take that to mean that Before the End, After the Beginning is not the last we'll hear from Dagoberto Gilb.

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