Monday, June 08, 2009

Specific lives, universal truths

Author strikes balance in '70s coming-of-age stories

Live from Fresno y Los: Stories (Bear Star Press) by Stephen D. Gutierrez

Book review by Daniel A. Olivas

Stephen D. Gutierrez's new book of short fiction, Live from Fresno y Los: Stories (Bear Star Press, $16 paperback), bears witness to the excitement and pain, exhilaration and disappointments, of growing up Chicano in Fresno and Los Angeles during the 1970s.

He renders his world in honest, eloquent brush strokes, creating stories that are simultaneously grounded in a particular culture while remaining universal in their message. He does this without sacrificing his trademark sense of humor.

He so perfectly captures the awkwardness and yearnings of puberty in the new collection that some of his stories made me break out into a cold sweat. In a recent interview with him, I asked how he felt as he revisited that era through fiction.

Gutierrez acknowledged that he "felt emotionally drawn into the times of those stories, not necessarily painfully, but fully aware that I had somehow come to grips with whatever inspired the stories by writing about them somewhat artistically -- that is to say, with the detachment necessary to shape raw emotions into something meaningful."

But in the end, no matter how difficult it might have been to revisit the past, writing makes Gutierrez happy, which, he said, is the bottom line.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is "The Barbershop," which concerns an aging father's last days and his family's attempts to cope. The power of this story comes from the very simple attempt by the father to get a haircut and maintain some dignity.
The story, Gutierrez said, is "pretty much autobiographical." He explained that his father suffered from a "horrendous" form of early-onset Alzheimer's complicated by other maladies.

"One day I saw him take what I already knew to be a heroic walk up to the front door of his regular barbershop for his last haircut. The image of him setting off down the sidewalk stayed with me, and I tried to make something out of it."

In the story "Harold, All American," Gutierrez writes about the racial and ethnic tensions among East Los Angeles teenagers: Chicanos vs. "Okies" vs. "wetbacks." The youths' emotions are raw and tattered, and their reaction to the surrounding world is nothing less than brutal. I asked Gutierrez whether he thought this type of struggle continues into adulthood.

"I think it does change," he said. "Everybody grows up, matures, laughs about it, how stupid one was as an adolescent, how commonly adolescent one was after all, how narrow-minded and protective of one's own fragile identity against everyone else." However, Gutierrez acknowledged that "there are some who refuse to grow up and carry hate into their adult lives," which he said is simply sad.

Gutierrez's stories have a particular emotional resonance for me because they conjure up images and personalities from my old neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles.

But there is universality in his subjects: adolescent struggle, aging parents, deep friendships, falling in love, the need to make a place in the world. Gutierrez understands this aspect of his stories.

"I think all writing is geared toward a particular audience; the suburban novel is going to bore stiff the urban reader," he explained. "But let me amend that: Most writing, by default, is particularized and necessarily appealing to a smaller audience than intended."

In the end, he hopes his characters "are deeply recognizable from whatever background you have -- they are people caught in the crux of life, facing their own demons."

Without a doubt, Gutierrez has succeeded in creating characters that transcend accent, culture and place in these deeply moving, well-crafted stories.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times]

1 comment:

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Poets & Wrtiers magazine just made note of "Live from Fresno y Los":