I spent six months in El Paso one weekend. It was Labor Day, 1999, and the fact that my short stay seemed so long had nothing to do with the town, and everything to do with my hosts at the El Paso County Jail.
After a therapeutic sojourn in Juárez (doctor's orders), I was arrested on the international bridge by two El Paso bike cops, one with the reddest eyes I've ever seen, the other looking like an overstuffed sausage in his spandex uniform. They had confronted me after someone complained that I had shoved a kid. While explaining that I had merely pushed my way through a crowd of Mexican shakedown artists at the foot of the bridge, they pounced on me (you might say I got the short end of the stick). Not being able to arrest me for dissing people in uniform (telling the fat cop how good he looked in his bike shorts may have had something to do with their bad mood), they charged me with public intoxication. Welcome home, one of them said.
In the joint, I shared a holding cell concrete floor with about 30 other guys, each of us wedged in place like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. By the time I was bailed out by my buddy Tom Russell, I had rubbed shoulders with a few cowboys, a couple of UTEP students, one or two servicemen, and about two dozen Chicano gangbangers. Everyone, especially the gangbangers, was friendly, polite, gregarious (everyone, that is, except the assholes with the badges). And every story told sounded like it could've been written by Dagoberto Gilb.
An El Paso boy, Gilb's got that border town's presence and patois down pat. His first short story collection, The Magic of Blood, won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the 10 stories in his new collection, Woodcuts of Women, are equally brilliant. Extraordinary stories about ordinary people, each of the pieces in the collection is a winner.
In the opener, "Maria de Covina," the narrator is a teenage department store clerk whose proficiency as a player is only slightly exceeded by his inexperience as a lover. Fired for dubious reasons after being seduced by his boss, he's the typical adolescent male, never satisfied, prone to braggadocio, frequently clueless.
In "Hueco," a couple makes love in the mattress indentation formed by two deaths and deals with a wacky landlady, a fading El Paso, a neighbor's shit noises and the color blue. "The Pillows" is a cliché-free exploration of ethnicity and assimilation, wonderfully devoid of the "get whitey" tone found in so much "ethnic" literature. A well-reasoned chicken-and-egg (which came first?) take on paternalism and responsibility, "A Painting in Santa Fe" is subtle and substantial.
The title character of "Brisa" is a 16-year-old lavender-haired whore, picked up on the street by a part-time bouncer. Her story walks the line between hilarity and hell; it's a white trash-brown trash losers' love story that ends in church while managing to steer clear of sentimentality.
An earlier Gilb story, "Down in the West Texas Town," documented a day in the lives of a group of chiva-shooting construction workers. Take one of that story's heroin hardhats, send him home, trade the junk for juice, and you have "Shout," a powerful depiction of working-class family life in a cramped, crowded, uncooled desert condo, harrowing and utterly believable.
In "Bottoms," a blocked writer reviews a gay sex novel at the insistence of his lesbian agent, struggles to avoid a gay acquaintance, and finds slapstick salvation with his blankie and the love of a needy amazon.
The closer, "Snow," is a tour de force. It follows a bullshit-artist Indio writer's trip to New York, where he hobnobs with big-shots, meets Mailer in Elaine's, and takes his pregnant girlfriend to the clinic. It's humorous, heartbreaking and, in tone and style, a lot like the writing of Jim Harrison.
Two minor complaints: First, most of the men in Woodcuts have woman problems, but they're problems I'd kill for: too many, too pretty, too available, too sexy, too cool. In this respect, Gilb reminds me of Tom McGuane, whose characters have money, property and women, but still find plenty to complain about. Thankfully, McGuane's considerable strengths easily overpower this small concern, and so do Gilb's. Second, the two stories with gay elements suffer from a "yeah, that was me in the gay bar, but I was there on assignment, honest!" undercurrent that weakens and distracts. But again, this isn't a deal breaker; the stories are still strong.
Overall, Gilb's writing is similar to that of Junot Díaz, the Dominican from New York. They both have an easygoing, sometimes laconic conversational tone, and an urgent, evocative sense of place. And they've both got that barrio thing.
Woodcuts of Women is a brilliant tour of Southwestern lives and locales, and an El Paso paseo that just might encourage readers to visit that charming but much-maligned border town.
Just stay away from the El Paso cops. Unlike their brethren across the river, they're a mean, rotten bunch.
Dagoberto Gilb will appear at Borders Books and Music, 5870 E. Broadway Blvd., on Tuesday, February 6 at 7 p.m.