Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: Skull of Pancho Villa

Review: Manuel Ramos. The Skull of Pancho Villa. And Other Stories. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2015.

Michael Sedano

It’s the “and Other Stories” that make such a reader’s treat of Manuel Ramos’ The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories. Ramos and Arte Publico Press put together a masterful collection of work spanning Ramos’ career 1986 to 2014. The 23 titles collected within four sections includes his first published story, “White Devils and Cockroaches,” the title piece which is a highlight of Ramos’ novel Desperado: A Mile High Noir, and finished versions of work Ramos shared in La Bloga. Ramos is a co-founder of La Bloga and one of our Friday columnists.

Ramos’ stock-in-trade is noir and hard-bitten fiction, so there’s a rich variety of losers and chagrined saps in these pages. Beyond that most satisfying set, other stories deal in poignancy, of kismet at a  chance encounter, science fiction death on strange planets, a poem, an eternity in a heartbeat.

The collection closes with a warmly nostalgic story. A shoeshine boy named Kiko runs across a guy named Jack who has a pal named Neal who’s out in California. A jerk pushes Kiko around and Jack gut punches the pendejo and gives him the bum’s rush. An irritated handler arrives, scoots Jack off to a college appearance. Kiko decides he’ll read Jack’s book some day.

The collection opens with a down-on-his-luck loser telling about that time he got shot by the mysterious woman.

The first-person story takes a hard bite out of the bitter ironies that make something noir. A drunken disbarred lawyer shoos off a desperate woman, thinks better of it, goes into Juárez looking for her. He makes a journey into a surreal temple, fails the quest, departs. He stumbles across her, she recognizes the wino who refused to help. She answers his pleading eyes with the only thing left to her now.

The ethos of noir characters is a rich field for writers like Manuel Ramos. Not only does he have the storyteller’s DNA, he’s visited by a marvelous agglomeration of characters who want their story out there. In Ramos’ hands, some characters really get out there while others are putty in his hands.

I got the biggest kick out of “The 405 Is Locked Down.” Ramos draws out the pain of bitter irony of a sap who should know better—has all the tools but he’s one of the biggest pendejos to be found in chicano literature. Ramos is a master of personae, pinning them like moths on display, short fiction ostensive definitions of categories of pendejismo. In “The 405” a small-time professor bites the lure of Hollywood riches and accepts an invitation to read at Cal State LA. On his own dime. That should have tipped him.

So the vato flies to the coast meets the fill-in-the-blanks female assistant to the big-time professor and nickle-dime producer. Uneasy feelings gnaw at the vato when he hears a vague notion of doing a pitch after the sap teaches a few classes. Then they start boozing it up. The producer gets sloppy drunk, the woman offers to show the vato a good time, the vato spends his last dime to cover the host's expenses and flies home with his tail between his legs.

Throughout that story especially I kept thinking of Burciaga’s essay on types of pendejos. That vato who got his comeuppance is the classic pendejo who is all the bigger one because he doesn’t know he’s a pendejo.

“If We Had Been Dancing” offers a different character sketch that comes with a generous helping of unexpected justice. A man walks into a bar and in his mind doesn’t want to drink too much after work. A woman strikes up a conversation and they start drinking whiskey.

Ramos lures the reader into empathy for the alcoholic narrator and the lonely woman. The story gets the reader siding with the woman even after she shoots a guy out of loneliness and robs the bar. The narrator offers how some people deserve a second chance. The final fifty words take all that good feeling, wraps it up in a wet towel, and gives you a loud cachetada for being a sucker. And you smile because the story’s only a third of the way into the collection and the reader feels the excitement of much more to come out of The Skull of Pancho Villa And Other Stories. 

Writers who struggle with that big novel will do well to see how Manuel Ramos, a master of the finely crafted mystery novel, handles the short form. The quick writes are gems and it's good seeing them get some ink.

From point of view, to character and ethos, to plot and twist, what Ramos does with such a tight space is a model for writers.

Readers have it best of all. The Skull of Pancho Villa And Other Stories is a perfect summer book and is widely available at local booksellers or the publisher's website.

Reading Aloud
Bluebird Brings Bukowski to Highland Park

Sunday, July 12 | 5pm - 8pm

Poets and other writers sharing Bukowski's work, and/or reading their own inspired work include:
Tomas Benitez
Felicia Gomez Verdin
John Martinez
Kym Ghee
Jim Marquez

The popular Bluebird open mic welcomes 2 minute contributions. Strictly applied.

To laugh, maybe cry, to celebrate his influence on us the real people, and also the writers, the drinkers, the lovers and haters of life, and lovers of Los Angeles.

as always - FREE, but donation appreciated
Avenue 50 Studio
131 N. Avenue 50
Highland Park CA 90042

The Bluebird Reading series is a component of Avenue 50 Studio's literary arts programming.

Avenue 50 Studio is supported in part by the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and the California Community Foundation.

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