In late fall, I had dinner with a Tucson writer friend, Matt Mendez, and his wife, and we talked about the wait for Dagoberto Gilb’s new collection, Before the End, After the Beginning. The book pubbed in November—high-time for the literary world’s big-shot writers—but the end of the semester was getting in the way of my reading time. I was eager to start the book and told Matt that one of the joys of finding it in an actual bookstore rather than ordering it online was the sense of encountering the book as it took its place with its peers. I remember when Gilb’s Woodcuts of Women came out in 2000, with Denise Chávez’s Loving Pedro Infante not long after. I was living in Boston at the time and, in both cases, anxiously poked in various bookstores around pub date to see if the books had been shelved. When they finally appeared, I loved how they looked stacked against the rest of the new fiction. I bought the ones I thought hadn’t yet been cracked open by anyone and, each time, went off to a nearby coffee shop to sit and read them. (I still have my Chávez hardcover, but the Gilb was, sadly, borrowed and never returned, even when I asked for it back).
This go-around I read Gilb’s newest book in my hometown of Dinuba, mostly at night after my parents had their fill of telenovelas. Half the pleasure of reading it in Dinuba was the reinforcement of Gilb’s locales (in his case, Texas and the Southwest) and their proximity to the lives and apprehensions I know so well. As much as I hate it when readers talk about “relating” to fiction (since the majority of American fiction gives me absolutely nothing to “relate to” on these easy terms), I felt a luxury of shorthand in just about all of the stories. “I never saw El Paso as poor,” says the narrator of “Blessing,” “and maybe that wasn’t the word, but you’d have to think something like it driving in this Albuquerque neighborhood, even if I didn’t like tract housing and really hated these adobe stuccos.” If tract housing signals “cheap” to middle America, it means something else entirely in places like the ones where Gilb’s characters live (and to a reader like me in Dinuba): it’s a silent signal of credit, access, and security. Home is truly a refuge.
It might be a bit of a stretch to argue that houses are working metaphorically in the collection, but very often Gilb’s protagonists find themselves unwittingly tangled in the lives of neighbors or inside the homes (and the privacy) of people not immediately close to them. Much of the drama spinning around Gilb’s characters comes from the dilemma of how to work back into a space that is one’s own, something to control fully. “I needed the favor because I wasn’t doing well and I’d run out of places to stay and mostly money,” says Billy, as he opens the story “Willows Village,” and right away I was treated to the clean introduction of conflict that every good story demands, if not an odd sentence construction that asked me to pay attention to how Billy would tell his side of things. The father in the brief “His Birthday” does his best to block out the din of the city to create a quiet, intimate celebration for his son on his special day. “Cheap” presents a protagonist who witnesses the overbearing manner of the boss of the two men hired to paint his rooms, and their exchanges become the genesis for a telling final act. Even the compact (and brilliant) “Why Kiki Was Late for Lunch” is built on intrusion: the narrator offers a ride to a complete stranger, only to find himself quickly immersed in the woman’s everyday drama.
For readers already familiar with Gilb, his trademark irony and his continued explorations of a very particular kind of Chicano masculinity are in great supply. Stylistically, the collection doesn’t offer the same verve of his woefully neglected 2008 novel The Flowers, but that’s hardly a complaint. The Flowers rolled the dice on a complex first-person voice for Sonny, a teenager maneuvering his way through a fiasco of violence and sex—the tones were mercurial, sometimes funny, sometimes shaky with Sonny’s lust, or even completely undone by Sonny’s rage. (It’s a novel I’m still waiting for people to read, if only to have a serious talk about its ending. A young undergraduate asked to read the novel with me as part of an independent study, and our discussion was long and fascinating: if you’re teaching, consider picking it up soon. Incidentally, the opening involves Sonny breaking into a house—not to steal, but to observe how other people live, the converse desire to so many of the characters in the new collection.)
But for those who have never encountered Gilb’s work, the entry point may be via a bit of his personal history. The odd typography of the first story, “please thank you,” alerts us to the physical limitations of Mr. Sanchez, recovering from a stroke, as he types out his experience. But while the easy thing might be to bridge immediately to Gilb’s own recent trauma, it may be wiser to listen to the character Gilb has breathed on the page. The draining experience of physical rehab is given no short shrift here, nor are the people who come in and out of Mr. Sanchez’s life as he puts it back together. Take Erlinda, who tells Mr. Sanchez an exasperating anecdote about shopping, then turns to him for a validation he can’t possibly offer. Mr. Sanchez wants out, to be over and done with the experience, yet his discovery is that he is trapped within a knowledge that he’s seemingly always had, maybe even from before the time he needed assistance: “i was someone who didnt matter, who didnt count much,” he tells us in the beginning. “in the large, i know its true. i am a name, just another, one they think is foreign even, when there are so many hurting. but then, so what? i accept it always, in my life, but now too?” Later, when Erlinda seems slighted by his lack of answer, the truth he tells may really be about himself. “you just…move forward. why dwell on that ugliness? youre fine now.”
What makes the line so moving is how accurately it matches the elegiac energy of the final story, “Hacia Teotitlán.” There’s a borrowed room there too, a space where the aging Ramiro returns to Mexico to reminisce and gather himself. If so many of the men in Gilb’s stories have often found themselves in exasperating situations of their own making, these two stories read as antidotes to that inability (or unwillingness) to avoid trouble. This time around, the men are weathered and bruised, and circumstances are demanding that they slow down. Whether it’s possible is another matter—the restlessness of masculinity is the theme of this great, tight collection, and it’s reflected in the urge to keep moving forward, as Mr. Sanchez told Erlinda. “Where will you go?” someone asks Ramiro and the pain comes from knowing the question is nearly rhetorical.