Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review: La Ranfla & Other New Mexico Stories.

Martha Egan. La Ranfla & Other New Mexico Stories. Santa Fe, NM. Papalote Press, 2009.
ISBN-13: 9780975588147

Michael Sedano

Martha Egan and Papalote Press have put together a seven-story collection of enjoyable, readable short fiction. Two of the stories feature automobiles, hence the “ranfla” title, and all take place in the state of New Mexico, hence the “New Mexico stories” subtitle. But for the latter add a subtle flavor of insider-outsider seasoning that I find curious. This doesn't diminish the pleasure of reading the collection, it adds an unsettling dimension that, perhaps, is another New Mexico element.

The title story, “La ranfla,” begins in late 1960s Berkeley, when a law student, fed up with law school pettiness and male chauvinism, storms out of lecture and huffs off with a handful of joints to move in with her hippie lover living in New Mexico. Her wheels start to show signs of conking out as she arrives in the state. A gas station attendant admires her “ranfla”, to her mystification. Gradually, the blonde Mary Kowalski and boyfriend Oso, begin fitting in. A kindly neighbor warns her about Pito, the crooked reverend and mechanic. But Oso and Starshine—her New Mexico name—already know Pito from the night Oso catches Pito stealing Oso’s marijuana crop. The story ends in a “cada cochino le llega su Sabado” irony, when the hippies conspire with an itinterant Mexican to pull a sting on the crooked local.

“Green eyes” delves into convoluted family histories. A lovestruck teenager wants to hook up with Teddy Gonzalez. Grandma Guenther tells Stephanie a tale about great grandmother Seferina and her husband, hubby Wilhelm. Seferina rides into the night to a remote home where she widwifes a sickly neonate. Fearing for the infant’s survival, and the hardship on the already large family, Seferina puts the child in her apron and rides back home. Fast forward to to the kitchen. That baby is Stephanie’s grandfather. Teddy comes from the family that consigned the preemie grandpa to the widwife’s apron. Cousins can’t hook up, and Stephanie learns a life lesson.

Egan’s third story, “Carnales,” makes the insider-outsider theme more explicit. A group of locals in the village of Ojo Claro, held at gunpoint by another local, feel unsure when the first deputy to arrive is an outsider—Procopio “Porky” Lucero. Porky’s wife is a local, but he’s from Española so the locals aren’t sure where Porky’s loyalties lie. The dispute grows from a greedy land grabber, in one view, protecting his property rights, the other view. It’s a spare story that hints rather than explains the complications of ejido lands held in common versus the fence ‘em off values of the outside economy. The dispute ends with gusto for the locals when they get the upper hand.

Two dog stories, “Mutt” and “Guapo” are strong pieces. In “Mutt” a transplanted local artisan is two-timed by a traveling salesman. “Guapo” offers a charming love story of two locals, a veterinarian and a rancher widower whose love story revolves around a singing, suicidal, dog. The story’s tragic ending both tugs at the heartstrings and leads me to wonder why locals cannot have happiness in an Egan story?

At least one outsider gets his come-uppance, in “Time Circles.” A philandering psychiatry profe at UNM, toys with blonde Anna, a woman 25 years his junior. The story treks out to “the rez” for a Navajo curing ceremony. Anna develops a kinship while helping Bernarda, a high school principal with a doctorate, pick her corn. Bernarda presents Anna with choice blue cobs and the truth about her lover. Shades of Tony Hillerman, the blonde records clerk finds a precious arrow point that she presents to their host, Dan Tom. Anna thinks Dan planted it as a cultural test. He didn’t and, unknown to Anna, her gift become a family treasure. It’s a moment of cultural and romantic truth for the woman. She dumps the profe and starts her own business in an Alburque adobe. Comes the flood when some pendejo runs a car over a fire hydrant and Anna’s gift craft antique shop fills with mud. The accident attracts a local snooty blond teevee news woman. It’s a “cute meet” as the tall indio camera operator is smitten with the damsel in distress and the rest, as someone says, is love at first sight.

“Granny” closes this excellent collection. A surfer dude, an east coast footloose grad traveling to California to find the perfect wave, has a car break down outside a dusty trailer park town on the edge of nowhere. Penniless, and ripped off during the night for his stereo and cool hubcaps—dastardly locals, no doubt—the fellow hangs around to teach middle school. It’s his lucky day when two precocious students help their grandmother escape from a jail on the other side. The dude can’t believe the outlandish story, but when he goes to find the truth, the kids and their dad have taken it on the lam. Eventually, they return to their trailer. The dad is the mechanic who’s promised to fix that broken down ranfla. Granny comes to the door and she is one hot mamasota. End of story but obviously the beginning of an affair to remember as the outsider hooks up with the local.

I think the vestiges of cultural nationalism infect my own experience of these seven stories. On their own, divorced of cultural baggage, they tell about a cultural patchwork and the melding of cultures and genetics overlaid upon the New Mexico landscape where we meet some decent gente and a variety of crummy people: drunks, thugs, crooks, exploiters, philanderers. Other than the philandering psychiatrist, all the lowlifes and losers are locals. But then, the star-crossed lovers are locals. The trump card for me is Egan’s persona , an outsider looking in with that sense of curiosity and apartness that allows the writer to express a subtle contempt for the local losers. Don’t think like that and you’ll enjoy the heck out of the occasionally bumpy ride in Egan’s ranfla suave.

I'm a bit late today, but nonetheless, here, on the penultimate Tuesday of the 9th month of 2009, a Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga.

te watcho.

La Bloga welcomes your comments and observations on today's or any day's columns. Simply click the comments counter below to share your views. When you have a column of your own, a book review, a report on an arts or cultural event, remember La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. Click here to discuss your invitation to be our guest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Michael Sedano,

Many, many thanks for your review of my book, La Ranfla and Other New Mexico Stories. You clearly read the book and thought about it, unlike some reviewers. Yes, La Ranfla is a bumpy ride at times, but hey, a lot of our roads here in New Mexico are unpaved.

Ay te watcho--Martha Egan