Old Pueblo Passage

With Biting Affection, Mark Poirier Examines The Pratfalls Of Tucson Youth.

Naked Pueblo, by Mark Jude Poirier (Harmony Books). Cloth, $21.

MARK POIRIER CAME to Tucson from Massachusetts as a middle-schooler, when his father's work transferred the large family (ultimately 11 children) west. During his years at Green Fields Country Day School, Poirier was openly contemptuous toward the Old Pueblo, and eagerly looked forward to college days in an environment of well-groomed ivy. In Naked Pueblo, Poirier's first book of stories, Tucson's roughest edges frame adolescent rites-of-passage in sharply observed detail that are instantly recognizable, and ironically endearing, to anyone who has found a bargain at Value Village.

The teenagers in Naked Pueblo are constantly on the move, in pick-up cabs rattling with empty beer cans, on souped up Vespas, in cluttered mini-vans, on unreliable bicycles. Armed with fake I.D.s, fueled by spliff or bumble bees or beer, they are habitués of the Buffet, the Congress Tap Room, the Bashful Bandit, college bars on Fourth Avenue, and the red-light dives in Nogales and Agua Prieta. Subject to comic pratfalls which are often dangerous, sometimes even fatal, they live in a world where adults, especially parents, are distant -- dead, drunk, divorced, disfigured. Betrayal and hypocrisy are ubiquitous, as well as the greatest evils. Although Poirier lacks J.D. Salinger's mastery of adolescent narrative voice, Holden Caulfield's spirit lurks everywhere in Naked Pueblo.

Poirier is keenly attuned to the fine points of superficial self-definition that characterize the trendy lives of contemporary adolescents. He is equally aware that hair styles, costume and musical tastes are a shallow, shifting foundation for such fierce loyalties. He treats the reader to a tour of several youthful subcultures -- preps, punks, mods, rastas, skinheads, mountain bikers, rock climbers and hippies -- making grotesques of them all. In "Ska Boy, 1986," Teddy, the narrator, is caught in a no-man's land between his new friend, ska-loving scooterist Justin, and a repressed erotic affection for his former hang-out pal, Tully, who has gone over to the skinheads. As gang rivalries veer toward what appears to be only ritual combat, indecisive Teddy is left to run alone through the desert night, festooned with cholla cactus segments.

Teddy is typical of all the narrators in Naked Pueblo. Angry, wary, cruelly judgmental, somehow thinking themselves superior to their peers, they are cowardly followers. Again and again they rue the fact that they don't speak up, don't resist, don't strike out, don't defend, don't prevent; and repeatedly their weakness leads them into loss, disaster, despair. Governed by a gloomy yearning to belong at all costs, they remain cynical outsiders even while ensconced at the center of the action. Poirier's edgy style, harsh in its language, especially about sex, which is consistently brutalized, serves to reinforce their disaffection. It also implies a compassion which their voices fear to express.

"Tilt-a-whirl," the closing story, and the best, provides a welcome palliative. In a reprise of the characters who open the book in "Son of the Monkey Lady," but without the mediating sarcasm of the narrator, unselfconscious tenderness emerges in a dysfunctional, "white trash" family. Mary's foot has been ripped off by the tilt-a-whirl at a raggedy carnival in southside Puchi's parking lot. Remembering the burial of her grandfather's hand in Douglas after it was severed in a mining accident, she is anxious in the hospital over what has happened to her lost foot. She has a horror of arriving in heaven without it. Assurances by her doctor and then by a priest fail to relieve her alarm. She also wonders whether, now that she is maimed, she'll be abandoned by Roger. "She and Roger were more buddies than lovers. They drank and gambled on the Indian reservations together. They went to the titty bars. Thursdays, Roger usually met Mary and Freddah at the dog track. Sometimes he'd drive Mary home, and they'd park in the dust behind the feed store. Their sex wasn't hot and passionate; it was somewhat perfunctory, but friendly and fun. In the truck with the crackly radio tuned to country classics, Mary'd pleasure Roger with the equivalent intentions she had when she fixed him supper after work, and Roger would bring Mary to orgasm with the same loyalty he demonstrated when he helped her clean the carburetor of her jalopy."

On the day Mary leaves the hospital, her quarrelsome son Chigger and his girlfriend, Grace, present her with a shoebox coffin he has made, containing not her foot, which has been burned as a biohazard, but her bloody sneaker. Together they bury it behind home plate on the baseball diamond at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, an island of peace and order. Driving home they inform her that Roger is waiting, barbecuing ribs in the backyard before taking her to the dog track. " 'Roger's taking me to the track?' Mary asked, extending her hand so Chigger could help her up. 'Really?' "

Poirier's affection for Tucson is likewise as subtle.

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