Tales of West Texas

Matt Méndez's debut is a rich collection of stories showing several sides of El Paso

Matt Méndez's story collection, Twitching Heart, is an impressive and engaging debut from an author with much promise. Blending gritty reality with a touch of the strange and surreal at times, these interconnected stories are intimately tied to place, specifically, El Paso, Texas, as they follow their characters through various triumphs and tragedies. Though decidedly dark in subject and tone, the stories still make room for humor, and the individual stories as well as the collection as a whole leave the reader with a new understanding of what it means to hope.

Throughout the collection, Méndez masterfully makes El Paso and its sister city, Juárez, come alive through the eyes of his characters. El Paso, or Chuco, as it's affectionately known, appears both beautiful and terrifying, often reflecting the mindset of the characters experiencing it at the time. Either way, the city is given those specific details that make it stand out in its particularity. As when we learn that "Chuy realized how much he loved Chuco, especially in the early morning when nobody was around to see the night thin and the sunrise over the mountains. The spiky bushes and cactuses with flowers blooming on them, sucking up the orange light." Or in a later story, when Flores, a run-down old man who chased his dead love to Juárez years earlier, prepares to die at the hands of the angel Uriel: "Set to die Flores walks the Avenida Juárez for the final time, camera hanging around his neck. The red and blue lights on police trucks flash; street vendors push their carretas across clogged streets, making their way toward the bridge to sell homemade jewelry and candy and bootleg movies to Americans happy to be heading back across." The cities in Twitching Heart refuse to be archetypes and are allowed to display both beauty and squalor, as all cities do. Thus, Méndez performs the neat trick of making El Paso seem both special and common, a city the reader can relate to while still being surprised.

It's also clear that the author has a great love for his characters and great skill at getting to their hearts swiftly and forcefully. Méndez takes the time to understand his characters before he writes them, as each comes across fully formed with their passions and desires intact and lovingly detailed by their creator. Without wasting space, Méndez is able to amply capture his characters' beings and motivations. In "Tacos Azteca," a particularly heart-wrenching story, Méndez introduces the reader to Israel, whose love for cooking dies along with his son. But Méndez gives us a glimpse into Israel's passion for food, and for his future wife, when he is tasked with making a champurrado for his future wife's father: "With the ingredients in front of him, Israel got busy. He mixed the masa with water and simmered it on the stove, adding splashes of milk and chocolate and clumps of piloncillo; he made sure to get the ingredients smooth before straining the drink into the old man's cup." Méndez understands that it is sometimes those mundane actions that characters perform that give us the greatest insight into their psyches. Throughout the collection, the reader is constantly meeting characters both recognizable and complex, characters that push the reader deeper into the narrative.

Méndez is also quite adept at intertwining the stories in Twitching Heart, and doesn't feel bound to space and time in how his characters exist and interact in El Paso. The characters are sometimes the sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters of characters from other stories, or sometimes through a twist of fate they share the same name. Thus, Perla, the older main character in one of the collection's best stories, "All Anything's Worth," returns in the final story, "The Last Ones on Earth," a post-apocalyptic vision of the Southwest many years in the future, in the form of another Perla, who is tangentially connected to the earlier Perla by a used copy of Juan Rulfo's novel Pedro Páramo. Méndez never belabors the connections between his characters, though, instead allowing the subtle repetition of names and images to strike the reader on their own. They're less recurring characters than echoes and Méndez handles these echoes with the deft touch of a poet. These connections that on a first read might seem fantastic, upon further examination and thought seem to follow those same strange rules of coincidence that occurs in real life, again grounding Méndez's gritty stories in reality while still leaving room for strangeness and magic to occur within their pages.

There is much to like and admire in Méndez's first collection of stories. His fully developed characters and settings bring the reader deep into their world and keep readers wanting more. One can only imagine what will come next.