The Curtain of Trees: Stories, by Alberto Alvaro Ríos(University of New Mexico Press). Paper, $14.95
READERS LOOKING FOR tough talk won't get any from Alberto Ríos. While neither weak-kneed nor sentimental, his writing is never loud, harsh or flinty. In fact, Ríos may be the gentlest writer around.
In two closely-related collections released this year, the Arizona author and college professor gracefully weaves his childhood memories of border-town life in Nogales into a colorful tapestry of recollection and invention.
Capirotada, a Mexican bread pudding made from a panoply of ingredients (prunes, peanuts, white bread, raisins, milk, cheese, spices, and the "old world" sugar known as "panocha") is what Ríos calls the Mexican version of fruitcake, a huge jumble of good things. Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir is similar in construction, also employing a huge jumble of good things, but the results are infinitely more satisfying than any fruitcake.
The 26 short non-fiction pieces in Capirotada are as diverse as they are satisfying. Told in a conversational tone, the stories about food, family, language and locale ramble along like so much friendly barroom banter. And if the deliberately casual tone produces a few awkward sentences, the prose is well-suited to the subject matter.
If the tales in Capirotada go down like cold Tecate (workaday, but nonetheless thirst-quenching) the stories in The Curtain of Trees taste like an expertly-mixed Manhattan. Curtain's eight short stories and one novella, all set near the Arizona-Sonora border, contain some of the most mesmerizing and finely-crafted prose anywhere, as in the opening of "The Orange Woman, the Walnut Girl":
"I have always been guided first by the smell of the leaves. The cottonwood leaves in fall are full of moisture and sigh, while the big-ear leaves of the cactus suppose themselves indifferent to the world. They buy one good coat for life and stick with it stubbornly to the end. Why not? they say, shrugging their shoulders as if to suggest the spendthrift folly of anything else.
"The Privet leaves do not want to go away and try to hang on all year. They hear everything and want desperately to be friends with the world, very different from the mesquite, which goes about its workaday business, dropping leaves and growing more, always on schedule, with the added bonus of mesquite pods, so many of them and so happy in their bodies and their music but inexplicable given the attitude of that tree."
The stories in Curtain also display Ríos' talent for getting inside the skin of his characters to narrate stories in the first person: as a crazy girl in "The Orange Woman, the Walnut Girl," as a wayward boy in "Don Gustavo, Who had a Hand for an Ear," and as the daughter of the town crier in "What I Heard From the Bear."
Ríos has much in common with the author Luis Alberto Urrea: both writers are border-town half-breeds (Ríos comes from Nogales, a Mexican father and an English mother; Urrea comes from Tijuana, a Mexican father and an American mother). Both are college professors, and both are accomplished in multiple disciplines (fiction, poetry, non-fiction). But Urrea's a little tougher.
In fact, when it comes to tough-talking Chicanos, Ríos is no match for the hammers and heroin of Dagoberto Gilb, or the tough-girl tempers of Ana Castillo and Sandra Cisneros. It's hard to imagine Ríos writing about the street meaning of "panocha," for example, and downright impossible to imagine him writing about it the way Cisneros did a few years ago, when she wrote about her big purple vulva in Ms. magazine. In Ríos' writing, readers will find no questionable subject matter, and nary a curse word. It's the literary equivalent of what stand-up comedians call "working clean."
And it works. Ríos' writing is quiet, graceful, often luscious, but never sentimental or cloying.
With Capirotada and especially The Curtain of Trees, Alberto Ríos proves again that writers are like teachers and lovers. Sometimes the gentle ones leave the deepest impression.