Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review: Homicide Survivors Picnic. Cano Reads At AMVETS Post.

Lorraine M. López. Homicide Survivors Picnic and other stories. Kansas City MO, BkMk Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-886157-72-9.

Michael Sedano

“That’s what I like about the South,” goes the refrain of an old toe-tapping song that I’m pretty sure readers of Lorraine M. López’ darkly intense stories will not be humming to oneself after completing the ten stories in Homicide Survivors Picnic. But then, given the irony of linking “homicide” with “picnic”, a reader does not pick up Homicide Survivors Picnic expecting sweetness and light to emanate from the pages. And it doesn’t.

Most of these are set in the South—Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama—and a couple of stories are set in sunny Southern California, whose ambience is anything but. A reader gets what the title proposes, a dank dark collection mirroring the debilitating heat and humidity of Southern weather. Unexpected will be the characters. Lopez’ central characters-many of them women-- are struggling everyday gente surrounded by, or engaged with losers.

“Survivors” aptly describes Lopez’ characters. In some stories, the survivors are characters radiating at the periphery of a central character’s behaviors, so readers need to be on their toes to catch on, or enjoy a reflective "ah hah" moment upon realizing who is the survivor.

These are not folks filled with zip-a-dee-doo-dah joie de vivre. There is Stewart, the failed male attorney developing a mediation practice. His live-in mate, Guadalupe, seems an irresponsible mother to her teenage girls. Thrice married and twice shacked up—he’s her latest “intermission”—Guadalupe takes what she can before moving on to the next jackass. When Guadalupe is arrested for writing bad checks, Stewart heeds the lovely woman’s pleading and calls on the judge who’s been keeping the mediation practice alive with referrals. The old judge trudges down to the jail, arranges for bail, and Guadalupe goes blithely on with her established pendejadas. Poor Stewart. The clerk of the court tells him to come see the Judge in the morning, and bring all his case files with him. Lopez gives Stewart a moment of triumph to close the story, but looking beyond the final paragraph the reader sees Stewart as the survivor of his own gullibility.

There’s Rita who, out of pity or misdirected charity—she works for a Roman Catholic organization-- allows her divorced husband to occupy the attached duplex apartment. Beto, her loutish loser of an ex, is one of those vapid football fanatics. Rita remembers Beto’s unperceived humiliation begging players for autographs as they file off the team bus before a game. They brush him off irritably. Beto’s prize possession is a Packers bobble-head doll. Back when they were still married, Rita had taken Beto’s doll from its shrine to amuse a child. She remembers how he’d bloodied her nose for the sacrilege. And here she is, living with her two children next door to this pig. As Rita’s story concludes she’s worked up the courage to evict Beto. In all likelihood, when Beto gets the news it literally will kill him. Rita’s seeming survivor’s moment of triumph comes from her resolve to move on whatever the consequences.

Many of Lopez’ stories don’t actually resolve the agony, the author preferring to lead the reader up to the crucial point then leaving it hanging. In “The Imam of Auburn,” Mona, a seriously mentally ill woman, attaches herself to a sympathetic acquaintance who goes the extra mile to support Mona’s debility. As the story ends, Mona dashes free of a hospital to hide in the back seat of Juana’s car. There's skulking Mona telling Juana’s husband to drive away, she’ll explain later. In the title story, a pregnant teenager ties her dead boyfriend’s do-rag across her eyes then dashes across a busy multi-lane highway (does Georgia have freeways?). Her brother, Ted—he’s the survivor, not his sister—looks toward his frantic mother, toward his sister, feeling trapped in the maze of their debilities and demands on him. But his sister needs to be saved and as the final sentence races to its period, Ted presses his eyes closed and seems about to dash blindly into the racing traffic, dreaming of California.

Kids, cats, spoiled food, thick-calves for some reason, and men with northern European names are some of the connective tissue Lopez relies upon to link the otherwise unrelated stories together. People Lopez doesn’t like—she probably dislikes most of her characters, interestingly enough—smell of dead meat or spoiled mayonnaise, or have those calves. The saps have names like Helmut or Anders. Whiny or poorly raised small children are a special torment; the four year old who likes to call people “motherf*cker”, or sad precocious Roxanne, who tells her caretaker survivor cousin she’s “doing it right”, raising the child while a speed-freak mother does time.

Characters whom the author dislikes more than others come in for Lopez’ most aggressive descriptions. When Rita explores Beto’s side of her duplex, for example, Lopez’ description of the horrid pigsty is arrestingly stomach-turning and makes a reader grateful that synaesthesia is not one of Lopez’ stronger techniques. Her visual images are strong enough, however, as in her description of a “prodigious turd” floating in Beto’s unflushed commode. And there’s thick-calved Helmut, who remarks to a visitor he’s meeting for the first time, how blonde the visitor is, for a Jew.

Short fiction must build quickly with an economy of description and suggestive plotting. When effectively concluded, such reading brings a short burst of pleasure, then the regret of that punto final. Given so compact a space, fact-checking becomes a major virtue for readers in the know. With the South generally a mystery to me--my street-level travel having been confined in multiple visits to metro Atlanta—I completely accept Lopez’ geography and local color. But not her Southern California. How surprising that Leo got his beef dipped sandwich from “Felipe’s.” If Lopez comes calling in SoCal one of these days, I’ll invite her to Philippe’s for the “original” beef dip sandwich, if she’s not gluten-adverse. One thing she gets right about El Lay traffic is the popularity of nonverbal communication—muck up a right of way, wey, and you’re sure to get a blaring horn and the finger.

I’m raising my index finger in Lorraine López’ direction--not the bird nor a Packer's foam rubber prop, but the “you’re number one” finger--in appreciation of a finely honed collection of short fiction any reader will find absorbing. And a bit of a heartbreak, in the end, when little Roxanne calls from her mother's crib, "I want to come home." I'll survive until López brings that little girl back in a fully-fleshed novel.

Daniel Cano Signing and Fundraiser

Saturdays in Los Angeles tend to come filled with excellent events and difficult forced choices. November 14, for example, featured a fabulous pair of art openings in Pomona at the far eastern reaches of LA County, and Daniel Cano's publication party about as far West as one can go in L.A. and not be in Santa Monica Bay.

I'm happy I elected the Cano event at the Pete Valdez Sr. AMVETS Post II near the Sony Studios, née Paramount Pictures, in Culver City. Cano's historical novel, Death and the American Dream, recounts an unknown period of Los Angeles history in his story of a Spanish-language journalist in the era of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. See this La Bloga review of Cano's novel. Mejor, buy the novel and read it.

The event was heavily attended, SRO, and only one fellow left his cellphone on. How silly some folks can be. He left the room to carry on the conversation behind a curtain. Hey, vato, we can still hear you! The only good thing is the caller was lost and needed directions. My Prius talks to me so navigating the bumper-to-bumper route from the Eastside to the AMVETS post was relatively painfree and no one gave me the finger.

The evening kicked off with an important message from Frank Juarez about political movidas chipping away at West L.A. land deeded in perpetuity for Veterans care. It's a deadly serious concern of itself, but appropriate to remark upon, since the "old soldiers' home" makes several appearances in Cano's novel. Please click the link and read about the shameful theft of land from wounded military Veterans.

Comic relief buffered Juarez' talk from Cano's reading, in the personage of The World's Most Radical Chicano, Che Castro. Castro launched a MEChA club in pre-school, talk about credentials. The actor, Elias Serna, a Ph. D. candidate in English at UC Riverside and CSU Northridge English profe, has a good sense of comedic timing that reinforces several hilarious bits, including his response to racial profiling. When ICE agents accost a Chicana or Chicano--we're citizens you know even if we don't have papers--show them que eres documentada, documentado:

And that's the antepenultimate Tuesday of November, a Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga. Buy books, gente!


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jmu said...

Oiga, joven, I believe that you need a fact-checker. The Paramount Pictures studio is still at 5555 Melrose Ave (check them out here (although the Bronson entrance is more well-known) not in Culver City. What is in Culver City are the MGM Studios where so many unforgettable movies were shot ("Gone With The Wind", "The Wizard of Oz", etc.). The MGM Studios became the SONY Studios in 2004.

Che Castro (CSS/Mal Ojo) said...

Puro pedo, those studios never include us anyhows! All that money, and all we have is "Walk Proud." You shuda mentioned next to Tito's Tacos, a Culver City Xicano landmark... only it's about 10 blocks away. Pues, anyhow, from a purely Xicano Hysterical Materialist perspective, this Bloga is ATM (a toda maquina!). Ke firme that you came out to our Westside varrios of Aztlantis! Where the varrio meets the surf...

Che Castro said...

"Xicano Teatro, at the risk of seeming rediculous, is inspired by deep feelings of love"
- Che Castro