A certain popular species of memoir can give the impression that one thing is absolutely necessary for an aspiring memoirist: some combination of dramatic violence and substance abuse, either involving the writer or immediate family. Maria Venegas’s debut, “Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter,’’ has got it all.
Her dad was an alcoholic who liked to shoot his pistol into the air after a few drinks. A stray bullet from a late-night drunken session left her father’s girlfriend confined to a wheelchair. Venegas’s brother, three of her uncles, and her grandfather all died violent deaths — her dad, in fact, shot one of her uncles outside a Mexican bar after a tiff. The memoir also covers a friend’s suicide, the kidnapping and eventual death of her father, and her own experience of a second trimester abortion after being raped as a teenager.
Her life, in short, has no shortage of dramatic violence and family turmoil. Yet the resulting book is oddly monotonous, less a shaped story than an enumeration of events hampered by technical and stylistic flaws.
The memoir opens with her immigrant father getting stabbed and shooting someone during a card game in their hometown of Chicago. Her father flees back to Mexico, leaving her, her mother, and her many siblings to fend for themselves. Her mother finds comfort in evangelical Christianity and encourages Venegas to lower her expectations and find a part-time job in high school. Venegas shows admirable resilience and perseverance, finishing high school, then college, and eventually winding up in the MFA program at Columbia.
The book is loosely modeled on a corrido, a popular form of Mexican ballad that typically commemorates the deeds of a legendary outlaw. It’s an intriguing idea for the structure, but she falters in execution. The form implies a certain admiration for its protagonist. But her impulse to romanticize her father’s life is consistently undermined by detailed descriptions of him shooting people, often for trivial reasons, and drinking himself into a stupor.
She eventually decides to try to resume a relationship with her father after years of estrangement, making regular visits to his ranch in Zacatecas, Mexico. The surge in violence in the countryside forms the backdrop of Venegas’s attempts to rebuild her ties to her father.
Kidnappings increase, large SUVs patrol the roads, and bodies accumulate in the depths of a local lake. Some blend of poverty and the increasing influence of drug cartels conspire to change the community where her father lives. It would have been interesting for Venegas to broaden her focus to include more analysis of the forces transforming the culture in rural Mexico.
Even before kidnappings and cartel violence became regular occurrences violence was not infrequent in rural Zacatecas. Many of her father’s anecdotes involve small insults leading to lethal conflicts. In one scene, her father is given a knife as a small boy and told to resolve his problems on his own. When Venegas was a young girl, her father told her to fight like a man; backing down was not an option. The transfer of destructive habits across generations is one of her central themes.
At times, Venegas shows stylistic flair, but she makes some strange artistic decisions. Many passages come in first person, some episodes about her father in third person, and, somewhat inexplicably, she even tries a chapter in second person. There is a secondhand quality to many scenes, in part because she is often reconstructing or imagining details. Her prose also tends to embrace the generic and cliché. Nearly every time someone drinks a beer, it’s “ice-cold.”
Each time she visits her father in Mexico, she returns to America with something of her father’s: a saddle, a machete, a clay jug. She also returns with many of his stories, but for the most part they remain as static and inert as the objects she retrieves.
Colson Whitehead describing a bus ride or Montaigne musing on gardening can be more engrossing than most writers recounting a gunfight. Subject matter can only take you so far; the rest depends on the meaning an author coaxes from it.