‘What is it I gotta do?’’ the Mexican asks the cop who suspects him of burglary but has no actual evidence. Several cops arrest him on the catch-all charge of disturbing the peace and resisting arrest, although it appears the cops are doing the most of the disturbing and all of the fighting. The unnamed Mexican narrator is not entirely blameless - he’s been fooling around with his married ex-girlfriend, and like many of the characters in these stories, has a checkered and shady past. “You were born,’’ the cop answers. “Until you die, the rest is on you.’’
So life goes for most of the characters in Dagoberto Gilb’s new collection of 10 short stories, “Before the End, After the Beginning.’’ Whether Gilb’s characters live in El Paso, Albuquerque, Austin, or Los Angeles, they’re mostly beaten-down, often unnamed working-class Mexican-Americans or Mexican immigrants trying to survive in the impoverished and often racist neighborhoods of the Southwest. Class distinctions abound. Poverty and crime thrive. Gilb’s characters struggle to make ends meet as mostly unemployed casuals, ironworkers, hostesses, musicians, and even as drug dealers. Some transcend their pasts but still grapple to reconcile them with their present lives.
There are a couple of good shorter pieces, more vignette than full-blown story, that vividly depict scene and mood, but the best stories here are the longer ones.
“Uncle Rock’’ tells about the relationship between 11-year-old Erick and his mother. Wherever mom goes, men flirt with her. She usually gives the man her number if he’s wearing a suit. Her choices of men and jobs tend to work out poorly as she tries to better herself and her son’s life. Roque, one of Erick’s mother’s most persistent suitors and the story’s “Uncle Rock,’’ is unremarkable, and Erick dislikes him. Still, he learns to call him uncle and to protect his mother from would-be Don Juans who’d take advantage of her.
In “The Last Time I Saw Junior,’’ originally published in the Boston Review, two former friends reunite after several years. The unnamed narrator, now living a decent life with a good job, has forgiven Junior after years of estrangement over an incident in which Junior cheated him financially, presumably over a drug deal. They meet in an Austin hotel. Eventually, Junior talks him into collecting money from a guy who owes him for some cocaine. Our narrator, for a time, and to his horror, reverts to his old bad ways as “one scary Mexican.’’
A musician is another unnamed narrator in “Cheap.’’ He teaches guitar and is going blind. He hires Luke, a bigoted contractor, to paint his house’s interior. Luke employs two Mexicans to do the work for slave wages. After learning how badly Luke is cheating the Mexicans, the guitar teacher decides to hire them, helping the Mexicanos and himself, by eliminating the middleman - or so he hopes.
Gilb, 61, suffered a stroke a few years ago. The main character Sanchez, in the perhaps autobiographical “please, thank you,’’ types a story of recovery from a stroke. Sanchez’s speech is slurred. He’s lost the use of his right hand and cannot use the shift key. The resultant apostrophe-free, lower-case story gives an avant-garde feeling to the stream-of-consciousness narrative. Sanchez is an ex-Marine and was an ironworker for 10 years. As he undergoes speech and physical therapy, he finds the leg exercises, though they’re easy and aren’t painful, the worst indignity of all: “so harsh i cant cry or rage.’’
That this story is so stylistically different from the rest, which are stark, realistic, and told in mostly gritty matter-of-fact prose, is testament to a writer whose work succeeds even when it departs from his accustomed style. The author of two other story collections, two novels, and an essay collection, Gilb portrays his characters simply and powerfully, without apology; even his unnamed characters represent the plight of not only every working-class Mexicano but Everyman.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com or through his blog at josephpeschel.com/HaveWords.