Review: Maria Nieto. The Water of Life Remains in the Dead. Mountain View, CA: Floricanto Press, 2016. ISBN 9781888205596
When a reader picks up a book one of the first impulses is to riffle the pages for a sense of layout and design. That’s what initially put me off reading Maria Nieto’s edge-of-the-seat murder novel, The Water of Life Remains in the Dead. It seems the publishers, Floricanto and Berkeley Press, used a generous amount of white space and a large font, giving me the impression the novel had a YA reader in mind.
The Water of Life Remains in the Dead presents a seriously adult plot about murder, sex with babies, clerical corruption, rotten people. It’s a novel populated with stomach-turning characters and a concluding irony about the passage of time.
It’s 1970. The story opens in mid-action with a truckload of mutilated bodies and an LA Times reporter having survived a murderous LAPD detective. The detective had been running a child sex ring, the reporter and her friends have barely escaped his clutches, and the murderer an apparent suicide.
Alejandra Marisol is the Times investigator whose instincts tell her there’s more to the crimes, that the mystery doesn’t begin and end with the dead pig.
Marisol is hot for the Chicano coroner, Armand Gomez, and he’s hot for her. They will consummate their heat, thought mostly off-stage. A sick tía, eagerly helpful sidekicks, an inexplicably hostile detective, and one good cop, round out the cast of allies.
The title becomes an irony as the action wraps. The coroner’s prima, Olivia, is a Caltech researcher experimenting with DNA as forensic evidence. “We are what we drink,” Olivia explains. Olivia analyzes bone and teeth from the dead guys, noting the water we drink contains a pair of isotopes of oxygen. Measuring the ratios and comparing those to geographic distribution can point to the places the dead were raised and where they’ve lived recently. “So you see, as sure as a rock turns to dust, the water of life remains in the dead.”
Because it’s 1970, the arch criminal in the novel’s final pages laughs in Marisol’s face. DNA evidence isn’t allowed in court. The water of life remains in the dead and the dead remain with no justice. Of course, today DNA evidence frees wrongfully convicted people with some regularity.
But that’s at the end. As the plot thickens Nieto raises holy hell involving high-level Catholic church honchos, including the Cardinal, whom the author christens McCrudden in a nod to Cardinal McIntyre, and his trusted financial adviser, Monsignor Crowe, who should eat some. Sex, baby stealing, imputed perversion, and real estate fraud circle around the cassocks.
The Water of Life Remains in the Dead is a Los Angeles book, where the city’s landmarks play useful roles in advancing the story or developing atmosphere. A dinner from Rocky’s Shrimp Boat coaxes the remembered feel of greasy wax paper mixed with the aroma of breaded seafood. Nieto crafts a nice homage to Acosta’s Revolt of the Cockroach People in her description of the Christmas eve mass at St. Basil’s church that opens Zeta’s novel. The opulence of the Biltmore hotel provides the background of a climactic confrontation with McCrudden and Crowe, where they cop out to sins of the flesh but excuse them away, leaving the detective-reporter frustrated and defeated. And taken captive.
Tracking the clerical clues leads Alejandra to a white-suited land developer whose presence in the film Water & Power--set in the same era--looms with the same kind of menace Nieto gives the tycoon. Sadly, the Richard Montoya film is little-known so perhaps the parallel is less homage and more this reader’s memory. But, like the film, this book deserves attention for its devotion to the city of La, and its unyielding perspective on corruption over Chavez Ravine.
That the action moves along swiftly is as it should be. When Alejandra is tied to a chair and a demon puts his lips to her bloody mouth, the plot comes to a screaming, satisfying climax that readers will laugh at for its ostentatiousness.
That big print that initially misled me into thinking The Water of Life Remains in the Dead a YA read, really is useful to aging eyes. Italicizing Spanish as if it is a foreign language is not at all useful. The story is a wonderful addition to LA literature. The intrepid reporter, Alejandra Marisol, makes an excellent addition to the small roster of Chicanas and Latinas in crime fiction--Gloria Damasco, Romilia Chacón, Inez Leon, Lupe Solano, Ivon Villa.
All in all, The Water of Life Remains in the Dead feels like Maria Nieto has the makings of an extended series of Chicana crime novels in store for readers. Adelante, mujer.
Ron Arias Launches The Wetback and Other Stories
The invitation made a lot of sense. Come to a remote location in the Cahuenga Pass in the mid-afternoon, get home before dark. Motivated perhaps by the fact that Arias travels by public transit, I welcome the sensible timing. Because I don't suffer late hours well, I miss a lot of wonderful events.
Once I get there I welcome the sylvan ambience, the sunny skies, the fabulous hors d’oeuvres--many gluten-free--the scintillating company, and the host’s eye-popping art collection. All in all, a perfect afternoon to launch an author’s capstone fiction collection.
|A.P. Gonzalez welcomes guests and introduces the reading|
As it developed, Manuel had written about Arias’ work and is part of today's reading. Manuel and Virginia were houseguests of Joan and Ron Arias, allowing the Ariases to avoid the vagaries of public transit.
|Manuel M. Martin-Rodriguez, a Chicano Literature scholar, introduces Ron Arias|
For the reading, Arias takes a stool at the closed end of the spacious living room. Light streaming in from the author’s right side creates interesting illumination, particularly when Arias does an encore reading from his manuscript notebook.
Arias’ raspy voice and animated style engage and delight his audience and he holds their rapt attention through a full reading of the nine-page Canine Cool. As Arias reads the story about sculpted clay dogs with attitude, my mind flashes on the seminal Chicano artist Magu’s sculptures of a perro with attitude. It doubles my pleasure when Arias tells the house he was thinking of Magu when he worked on the story, and points me out as someone who knew Magu. Appropriately, Sunday following the Saturday reading was Magu’s 76th birthday. QEPD.
The Wetback and Other Stories marks Arias’ return to fiction after a career in non-fiction reporting from across the globe for People Magazine. The book brings together fourteen previously published stories, along with two new pieces. Arte Publico Press publishes The Wetback and Other Stories. You can order the collection directly from the publisher’s website, as well as have your local brick and mortar bookseller stock copies for you and your friends.
Here’s a podcast of Arias discussing the collection https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/larb-radio-hour/id998390884?mt=2
|Joan Arias and J.P. Gonzalez listen|
ChimMaya Celebrates Eleventh Year with Blockbuster Exhibition
Say the phrase, “East Los Angeles” and it evokes notions of a heartland of Chicanismo. Few places represent that idea better than ChimMaya Gallery.
La Bloga discovered the gallery in July 2009, when La Bloga-Tuesday observed, “Today, I'm happy to introduce ChimMaya, a spot of entrepreneurial genius located in eastern East Los Angeles. ChimMaya has the distinction of being one of those rare eastside galleries to have gotten some ink from the Los AngelesTimes. Felicidades, ChimMaya.
A vibrant centro cultural, ChimMaya has hosted writers like Ana Castillo, collector Cheech Marin, and politician Richard Alatorre. Fine art, however, remains the gallery's special métier as ChimMaya has grown and enlarged its place in the art world. Along with Avenue 50 Studio, ChimMaya represents the best in Southern California arte.
|Entry gallery offers itself, a turn to the left, or onward to three more spaces|
But ChimMaya is more than the annual Frida show. Month-in, month-out the gallery brings in work from a solid list of accomplished raza artists. Steven Acevedo, the gallery’s artistic director, has a keen eye for talent and he regularly welcomes emerging artists to display work in one of the four distinct spaces within the gallery.
Be sure to visit ChimMaya on Facebook, or the gallery’s space on the world wide web for a generous sampling of the artists and work displayed at ChimMaya Gallery.
|Rick Ortega and Mario Trillo with" Man of Maravilla"(Charcoal and Conte on Paper (20x24)|
I head toward the outdoor garden for a drink of ice water when Rick Ortega spots me and gives me an abrazo. We walk together into the final room where Ortega’s pencil drawing of dapper Mario Trillo commands the view. Mario is in the area and I impose on the artist and his subject to pose for a doppelgänger portrait.
In the main salon, a striking portrait of a young woman encircled by multicolored pupae dominates the far wall. I do not know the artist, Ariel Vargassal, but that is quickly remedied and Ariel is happy to talk about his work and pose for a portrait with his portrait.
The main gallery has a comfortable sitting area and people congregate to be near it, and the restrooms. Mario Guerrero and Mario Trillo relax beneath another Ariel Vargassal portrait, a stark white background, a living chambered nautilus, a reclining figure.
Glass artist Jaime Guerrero chats with Joe Bravo. Joe is a grandfather and offers his observations to Jaime, whose daughter at four months has begun crawling. Joe is the innovative tortilla artist, though he’s stepped back from the medium and only recently showed his paintings on a tortilla again.
|Jaime Guerrero, new dad. Joe Bravo, experienced grandfather|
As I prepare to wrap up my visit—my wife acquired a Frida purse from the ChimMaya boutique—I stop to talk with Ceci Segura-Gonzales. Her eight foot panel features the ancient raices of Mexican history, Olmec head, Toltec stele, and screaming tribal gente converging on a grotesque naked tiny-penised Donald Trump. A jaguar opens its jaws to swallow the cowering Trump, who stands in a pool of his own urine.
Silhouette figures that have leaped off an immigrants-crossing traffic sign to charge across the landscape, summoned to action by a mariachi trumpeter. On the opposite side, the screaming woman from Picasso’s Guernica sends her agonized calls to the skies, another clarion.
Segura tells me she was incredibly angry and started drawing with the Trump figure. She kept drawing and unrolling paper and drawing and unrolling more paper until she had devoted hundreds of hours and realized that framing the piece would be enormously expensive. She takes a deep breath and I understand there is another fifty feet of pent-in anger restrained in her fingers. The piece is titled, The Wall / Codex:"that Mexican thing." Pencil, Ink, Acrylic on Gessoed Paper (3'x8').
ChimMaya Gallery is near Atlantic and Beverly Blvd at 5283 E Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90022