Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Lighting up the story. Los Cinco Puntos.

Review: Daniel A. Olivas. The King of Lighting Fixtures. Tucson: U of Arizona Press, 2017.
ISBN 9780816535620

Michael Sedano

Daniel A. Olivas doesn’t write by the rules. Rules are that territory where faint-hearted story-tellers dwell, a beauteous splinter of a story in hand, the writer spikes it, crushed by the weight of rules dictating there be plot, character, agon, resolutions, and maybe messages, stuff dating back to Aristotle and the 3d Century B.C.

That’s all good stuff, but Olivas doesn’t let the rules stand in the way of what Aristotle meant by the art of adapting the message to the audience. Contemporary readers come with enormous memory banks and high tolerance for abstraction. Matters of the Spirits and other worlds make up the literary lingua franca of contemporary imaginings that involve zombies and vampires and space critters.

 Readers aren't afraid of the dark. Many seek it. Olivas has discovered modern readers enjoy what he calls devil tales. Devil Talk, in fact, is the title of the writer’s 2004 Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe collection.

Where Devil Talk relates strangely natural, naturally strange, and quotidian supernatural moments, blending elements of real evil with absurdity and irony, The King of Lighting Fixtures’ characters and readers have all that, plus generous servings of helpless bewilderment, bedazzled reading, and now and again, outrage. It’s just a pinche story, keep reminding yourself.

The King of Lighting Fixtures, goes way beyond Devil Talk to where faint-hearted readers may dwell. That’s why Olivas starts them out with the gentle miracle of the twelve-fingered man. Then The King of Lighting Fixtures turns to unexpected avenues.

Writers will pore through the 30 stories and 152 pages castigando themselves for lacking Olivas’ outrageous artistry in laying down a hundred or so words and calling it a story, like “Fat Man.” Or the author’s determination to let stories stand on their own, even when it ends a page later or 4 pages, like "@chicanowriter." At 30 pages, the title story "The King of Lighting Fixtures", is the longest piece in the collection.

Because some pieces are of such brevity and wit, readers will take delight in reading twice. In other stories, readers will flip back a paragraph to wrest some context over some strange event coming out of nowhere. Or coming from hell. The devil, an everyday guy stuck in the affordable housing crunch, sublets a pendejo’s pad. Ho-hum, quotidian evil is the vato’s way, and eventually he moves on to better digs.

And these are stories, elegant in their suggestiveness, in their simplicity, in their interactivity with the reader’s expectation of story, and experience with experimental work. This is when fiction works just like Aristotle’s model of the enthymeme. That’s a way of saying Olivas’ world offers a logic of partial syllogisms whose absent terms come from the reader’s experience, or perhaps, perversity. There’s the fellow who UPS’d his Soul to a woman. When he asks her to return the package, she stares at a lovely fire. Fill in the blanks at your own peril if there’s no reason to suspect her. Is there? And who do you think you are, imagining her capable of so monstrous an act! You thought that up by yourself, Olivas didn't say a thing. OK, a little.

Some blanks are more easily filled in than others. The opening sentences of “Like Rivera and Kahlo,” poses a man with a sleeping woman for a photograph. Are they dressed? He says he’ll leave on the sunglasses. The end. There’s a story of pure redemption that comes with no strings attached, just me and my shadow. A story of women killing assholes.

Olivas will beguile readers in stories demanding the reader’s interactivity to add details, consequences, horror or what lies in the reader’s ken, or just beyond. Some will be spelled out. The young lawyer stuck in a gig economy world, will the driver stick him with that blade? There’s no hope for "@chicanowriter's" Tenorio (the name of Bless Me, Ultima’s bad guy) who starts this character study an asshole, experiences a flash of empathy and humanity, then reverts to pure assholia, outlining a story about this miscarriage, imagining how this will advance the asshole's career.

Other stories will take some letting go and allowing the writer to take you into his particular slice of universe. There’s fun to be had here, sometimes a reader will work at it, but when it’s over—and all too soon the pages fly past—readers will seek out Devil Talk and Olivas’ LA fiction.

Ambiguity enriches most stories for the interacting reader. “Pluck,” for example, offers momentary ambiguity in the title’s notion of a spirited person, but this evaporates in a description of a girl’s showing her first pubic hair. Mother takes out a pair of tweezers. A sweep of emotions overtakes a reader upon the unspoken conclusion the mother will pluck the little girl’s hairs, one by one. And here comes a residue of that intitial ambiguity, plucking will take the pluck out of this girl. The reader shakes a head outraged. OK, it’s fiction and you can say the worst things, but this? Doubly outraged, and Olivas is smiling somewhere.

The plucked girl is one of several younger narrators and characters in the stories. At least one story  strongly echoes Olivas’ children’s book about bullying, Benjamin and the Word. The current title depicts choice adolescent moments, the prom date, the smitten teen, the abused sister. The Olivas touch: the smitten teen is probably a sociopathic murderer luring-in his enamorada, the cop. The abused sister perforates a brother’s corpse for each time he penetrated her. The prom date scenario turns into a gay basher's pain, a sweet revenge story, à la Benjamin.

There’s a lot of sex and “fucks” in The King of Lighting Fixtures, to a point they become noticeable. Maybe it’s that Olivas is writing about young people and that’s their world. But not all the sex is the lubricious variety. The title piece, for instance, spins a yarn about how a decent fellow does indecent crud just to make his move on a sex object. She goes along with what comes along. No big deal to her; she sleeps around and she knows the king of lighting fixtures will accept the baby as his.

This title story presents Olivas’ most structured piece. The author blends narrative style with interview Q&A, and breaks the “third wall” by making an appearance as himself in the plotting. There are those “rules” again making not a whit of difference to telling a good story. The added false sense of verisimilitude is funny in style, and maybe an in-joke between Olivas and some crypto-audience, or an editor who says you can’t do that. Indeed, in “Meeting with My Editor,” [sic], Olivas is the title character in a story that blue pencils itself in its creation, sui generis.

These stories are good, no matter their length and structure. And they are stories, with plots and characters and conflict and irony and points, mostly. Maybe a few won't work. But they're short. Many elements aren’t obvious, and things sometimes go missing. Ni modo. Sometimes, that’s Olivas’ point.

The University of Arizona Press title enjoys popular distribution into the independent bookseller market, or readers can order publisher-direct, how much can one remote order hurt, right? 

Mail Bag
Austin Centro Poetry Reading

Join us for a special night of literary performance reading.
MARISOL BACA, author of Tremor
RODNEY GOMEZ, author of Citizens of the Mausoleum and Baedeker from the Persistent Refuge
XOCHITL-JULISA BERMEJO, author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge
GRIS MUÑOZ, author of Coatlicue Girl

Best Masa in All of Los Angeles

My mother used to take me to visit little gramma, we called her, or abuelita, depending on code-switching rules du jour. Abuela was my grandmother, who dressed poultry. Abuelita worked at Las Cuatro Milpas tortilleria around the corner from the same-named Mexican grocery store on San Bernardino's Mt. Vernon Avenue.

My second-earliest memory of eating is sitting under a Chinaberry tree in the lot behind the shop. Abuelita handing me a handmade tortilla, sometimes a guisado taco, sometimes just that fresh off the comal toastiness that tastes all the better to background music of slapping hands making tortillas and las mujeres chatting away, filling a small boy with lifelong memories.

This is a 1999 account of a visit to Los Cinco Puntos, back when I was a worker and commuted between Vernon and Pasadena. It was déja vu all over again Sunday morning as I stood in the early line to order my masa at 5 Puntos, chatting with some vatos who were getting tacos and some women getting the masa for New Year's Eve tamaladas.

This year's tamalada for the new year was superb, and not just because 5 Puntos is unchanging. I haven't tried them all, but 5 Points makes LA's best masa.

Our daughter and eleven-year old granddaughter have taken the reins of the familia tamalada now. Their guests made us old folks feel teary nostalgic, greeting us with warm memories of doing this tamalada at our house as they were growing up. And now, their kids run screaming and leaping and ganging up. Doing it all right.

Quince libras de masa preparada, I tell her. She nods, turns and walks to the mixer to begin preparando my masa. I wait.

Cinco Puntos. Thirty minute detour, plus a stop at a panaderia because Cinco Puntos specializes in hand made tortillas de maíz, and tamales-making necessities.

Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional
Cabezas de chivo, the ten-year old sister informs two younger kids following her through the store. Chilango vowels expressing enough asco to make her point, syllables unfurling to present a striking music in the overheard moment. Her siblings nod assent, turning to stare seriously upon the racks of roasted goat and beef heads.

The two tortilla-makers work steadily. The one nearest smiles briefly when I catch her eye then resumes work. Lean in to pinch some masa, roll it on the lip of the metate, pulling away a palmful, pauses, pat-pat, swivelling to face her corner of the stainless steel comal, where a new tort bubbles its readiness as she turns to lay the next one to take its place.

She pat-pats four more times then leans toward her hot spot while her fingertips finish rounding out the tortilla. She sees a spot and plops down the shaped masa. She keeps a dozen cooking constantly.

Ten feet across the comal at the far corner, her partner doesn't look up. Her comal's fully covered with roasting tortillas, eighteen or more. My friend's burners are inefficient, the woman's comal showing only a few hot spots, one in particular where she puts the fresh ones to start them. Her partner looks to have a six- or eight- tort hot spot in front of her, allowing her to have so many more tortillas. The nearby tortilla maker's output will never surpass her comadre's, the comadre will always hold title of better tortilla maker. It's OK, my friend is young. In ten years, she'll have that spot, and she'll be the best.

Preparando masa takes the right amount of time, allowing a wandering mind's making eye contact with a staring cabeza de chivo. Or the roasted molars smiling under oily tender-cooked lips. Offal eaters we are, judging by the hot case. Cabezas; tripas -- braided and cooked solid, crispy. Look like tripas de leche. Kidneys. Organs roasting on an open fire.

Offal sausage. Fatly bulging membranes of sangre. The sign doesn't say morcilla or any euphemism; Sangre it is. Bolitas chorizo, the best you can find; an unusual chorizo in a short chub. Chorizo -- heart meat, cheeks, trimmings, fat, anything you can chop up and cook tender with lots of red chile and spices.

Chicharrones. Thick chicharrones, saturated, sporting one thin crispy toasted layer. Fried Skin. Fried fat. Crispy chicharrones. No chicharrones de carne here, too bad; deep fat fried lomo, rich and soft. Pull the meat apart with your fingers and eat with your hands. Pickled pork skin, not as much fun eating as a pata.

I pick out two bags of chile negro but: no carne seca, carnitas, chicharrones, braids of crispy tripas. No offal today.

A dozen tortillas de maíz. Wrapped in butcher paper, hot from the comal, the car smells of these fresh tortillas for days afterward.

Four streets from my home, Food4Less sells 10 lb bags of masa preparada, all the chile, and more, for a tamalada. Even raw cabezas. Cinco Puntos masa makes LA's best. Masa preparada'd while you wait holds its fluffiness still fresh off the beater so the tamales come out moist, light, tender.

A stop at El Gallo to pick out fluffy conchas, soft helotes, and crunchy glistening campechanas. Mission accomplished: masa, chile negro, pan. The entire drive home across stop-and-go surface street congestion I can't get offal off my mind, and those serious faces heeding the voice of that little indian girl, "cabezas de chiiivo."

Welcome to the Land of Plenty, kids.

1 comment:

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Michael, mil gracias for this insightful, thoughtful, and very funny review. Much appreciated. Happy new year!