Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Review: Their Dogs Came With Them

Helena María Viramontes. Their dogs came with them : a novel. New York : Atria, 2007. ISBN 0743287665 9780743287661

Read Daniel Olivas' interview with Helen Viramontes

Michael Sedano
An arresting title is all it takes to intrigue a book browser’s interest, which poses a happy future for Their Dogs Came With Them. Author Helena María Viramontes temporarily satisfies the browser’s question in an epigram quoting an eyewitness that when the Spanish invaded, leading the invading columns came the dogs, “their saliva dripping from their jaws.”

So, who are the dogs of the title?

Viramontes begins her story in 1960. The new freeway is invading an East Los Angeles neighborhood. One side of First Street remains. Across the street, the homes have been condemned. One day the home is filled with neighbors, the next day empty shells signal the coming of the Pomona Freeway that will connect the inland valleys to the sea.

The turmoil and destruction take years to wend their way through the land, in the meantime, four neighbors take the novel’s center stage, their stories alternating and combining ultimately to arrive at the same time and place.

There’s the abused orphan Ermila whose distance from her grandparents is all the more ironic because she is going nowhere. Ben Brady, the half Mexican boy with the Anglo father, like Ermila, is badly damaged, even before he survives being hit by a truck. Turtle née Antonia, goes about head shaved striving to fit in with her little brother who himself strives to fit in with gangbangers. Finally, Tranquilina’s family, itinerant missionaries who manage to do good.

Viramontes guides us through the four lives as they intersect. We see Ermila transferred by social services from a foster home to her grandparents’ house. The child becomes a burden that neither grandparent allows the child to forget. Ermila finds solace across the street until the day the old woman has to leave. We learn about Turtle’s family, the tattooed uncle who comes and goes from prison, her indoctrination into fist fighting watching her father punch out her mother, her uncle taking revenge against the father, the mother jumping in to protect her husband, in the process trampling Ermila’s nopales. Ben’s decline is the saddest. He sinks from a brightly alert boy to a totally dissociated victim of mindless violence. Viramontes’ treatment of Ben’s mental illness is sickeningly accurate and so deeply disturbing that readers with friends or family suffering mental illness will find a few pages almost unbearable.

The author doesn’t always tread deadly serious, even about deadly serious subjects. As Turtle’s little brother is practicing to be a tough guy cholo, his veterano uncle and aunt will have none of it. Readers who may have watched a primo sink into gangs will recognize the point, the uncle and aunt don’t go far enough.

…and he gestured to Tio Angel with a slight lift of his chin, barely acknowledging his question. Hanging with the McBride Boys, Luis was learning how not to talk and it was all about learning the unspoken for him now…the confident badass walk protecting a nation of city blocks claimed by McBride... And Tio Angel understood. He read the missing words and he slapped Luis upside his crew-cut head to get a word out of him. Speak up, he ordered, one combat ass-kicking boot coming out of the door…. I don’t take shit from nobody, sabes mi’jo? And Tio bent a little more to rub the spiky section where he had Three Stooges-slapped Luis, regretting his outburst…. You been hanging out too much with men, ése, Aunt Mercy said, a tumbler with flat beer in front of her. She wore a striped halter top, and her breasts cushioned her crossed arms…Luis walked past her still holding the clothespins…Wash my clothes too, would you, tuff homeboy? Aunt Mercy continued, because she thought humiliation captivating. 158

Reality remains on tenterhooks throughout the second part of the novel. Not only are the neighborhoods disrupted by the heavy construction, there’s a rabies quarantine surrounding the east LA neighborhood. Barricades across the sidewalks control resident travel, identity card checks pose their own dangers aside from being denies access to one’s own street. Helicopters buzz the sky, armed patrols track down strays, gunshots fill the night sounds as authorities dispatch the sources of disease. And we have met the dogs. Uniformed guys with Spanish surnames.

Yet, there's a more vital question: Who are the they who brought these dogs? It’s not stretching the metaphor too far to inquire, but it’s bootless. To me, this remains the most serious question that begs to be answered if the book is to realize it's fuller possibilities. Helena María Viramontes has produced a work of enduring quality. The 1960s are a watershed period in history that Chicano fiction has traversed before. Viramontes avoids the movement perspective of the mass to focus on the intensely personal issues of survival, or the futility thereof. And this is one issue that bothers me.

Does a writer have an obligation to build and support her culture by crafting affirming characters and stories, or should a writer allow herself to craft depressingly dismal dioramas of doomed lives? Should I alliterate? In this novel, one character runs off into the night, another is a murderer, another is murdered, another stands in a spotlight at the brink of death as the book closes. Did these characters will these outcomes, or did these outcomes have a lot to do with powers that invade neighborhoods with earth-moving machinery that bulldozes through people's lives with impunity? And really, who are "they"?

End of August 2007 fast approaches. Milestone events for me, as shall be seen. In the meantime, please post comments and responses to this, or any, La Bloga review. And if you've a mind to share with La Bloga, click here or send email to a Bloguera Bloguero.

See you next week.



Anonymous said...

"Does a writer have an obligation to build and support her culture by crafting affirming characters and stories, or should a writer allow herself to craft depressingly dismal dioramas of doomed lives?"

While I see the sentiment behind this question, its phrasing tips its hand at the facile way in which the world at large tends to read Chican@ fiction: as mere representation and political tract, story but no characters. The best fiction offers the gift of humanity's deep complexities--and that's usually done with characters with all their facets and dimensions exposed on the page, dismal or otherwise. Viramontes's novel has stunned me, as both a reader and a writer, in its refusal to shy away from the conflict and distress of interior life. In doing so, the novel has sent a subtle but insistent signal to all American readers: these are some of the many stories--the many people--long-ignored, but their reverberations echo on forty years down the line. Get ready for more of it.

I'd urge all readers of LaBloga to look up the recent radio interview on Michael Silverblatt's wonderful program, "Bookworm." Listen to the opening moments of his unequivocal praise for Helena's work and its coming recognition as a great American novel. I, for one, come down on the side of a writer crafting exactly what her heart tells her to do, painful as it is, with no obligation to anyone or anything but art in the service of all humanity, not just the safety of our Chican@ readers. "Art hurts," Gwendolyn Brooks told us. "Art urges voyages--and it is easier to stay at home."

Unknown said...

In lieu of La Bloga issuing an announcement that I will be leaving La Bloga to focus on my own blog and writing, I guess I'll issue it here. It's been a nice couple of years contributing here.

Rudy - you're too much - watch what you say about people who's books you don't read. Rene, I think you're doing an awesome job with children's lit and nobody does it better. I leave the ninos in excellent hands with you.

Daniel eres el mas caballero - stay in touch y mucho suerte con todo. Te dejo una danza del fuego - come see us at Dia de Los Muertos so I can do the fire dance for your family. Con mucho carino.

Michael - otro caballero y de todo dar. Arte y cultura in El A is richer for having you.

Manuel - muchisimas gracias por todo. I didn't get to know you as well as the rest pero you were a rockstar with me. Besos.

Lisa - her mana - que mas puedo decir? Keep up the excellent work and may your path on the road be filled con mucho luz y alma. Un abrazo.