Daniel Alarcón’s new collection, “The King Is Always Above the People,’’ begins with four top-notch stories. In “The Thousands,” a brief parable of collective solidarity, a disenfranchised “we” claims an expanse of unoccupied land by jerry-rigging an entire neighborhood of houses in a single night (out of “[e]verything the city discarded,” from “tarps and sticks” to “sewn-together rice sacks” and “scavenged hoods of old cars”) because the “law was very clear . . . the government was not allowed to bulldoze homes.”
“The Ballad of Rocky Rontal,” a barely fictionalized version of Alarcón’s 2016 magazine profile of a California gang member, uses an empathetic second-person subjunctive to illuminate how circumstances lead Rontal into crime and prison, and how he leads himself out: “Let’s say sometime during your second decade in prison you begin to think about the true meanings of simple words. Words like compassion. Understanding. Consideration. Forgiveness.” “The King Is Always Above the People” weaves a warp of late adolescent disaffection through a weft of violence, corruption, and familial pressure as a young man struggles to escape the constraints of his provincial life in an unnamed Latin American country.
“Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot,” perhaps the most inventive story of the collection, begins as dirty realism but soon enters a time warp, as Manuel, recently fired from his job in a call center and in the midst of a break-up, recalls his love affair with Lincoln, “a good man, a competent lover, a dignified leader with a tender heart . . . [who] wanted to be a poet, but settled for being a statesman.” The affair begins “at a party in Chicago . . . one of those Wicker Park affairs with fixed gear bikes locked out front” and is long since over when, at the end of the Civil War, Manuel hears on the radio that Lincoln been shot; it provides a poignant counterpoint to his current travails.
The sophisticated stylistic diversity of this entertaining and inspiring opening quartet is a delight. Yet as the ensuing stories unfurl, some wonderful, some so slight as to feel like filler, the collection begins to resolve into a set of repetitive themes. Here, in “The King Is Always Above the People,” “The Provincials,” and “The Bridge” are corruption, political change, and war. There, in “The Provincials,” “República and Grau,” and “The Bridge” are forgery, theater, identity borrowing, and identity theft (I have never read a book with so many copy machines). Roads serve as literal plot points and symbolic motifs in “Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot,” “The Provincials,” “República and Grau,” and “The Bridge.” And, throughout, characters move back and forth between the provinces and capital of the unnamed country (identified only in “Extinct Anatomies” as Alarcón’s native Peru).
If Alarcón explicitly thematizes migration, urbanization, the lives of those left behind and discarded, and the emotional byproducts of geographic and social mobility, a related but distinct theme eventually comes to dominate the book: men coping with the inadequacies of their lives. In every story we encounter them: dead men; disappointed men; men in bars; men struggling with their grandfathers, fathers, uncles, cousins, and sons; and above all men who leave, sometimes at a story’s beginning, sometimes at its end, sometimes, as in the titular and central “The King Is Always Above The People,” both.
Fiction about men is, of course, hardly notable, but Alarcón’s dispirited, frustrated, and endlessly seeking — even when they are successful — men stand out in particular against the flatness of his women. These muted barmaids, wives, mothers, and girlfriends function largely to thwart or succor their men, a banal dichotomy and frustrating misstep for a book with so many strengths.
The novella that ends the collection, “The Auroras,” is the first story to offer women with lives of their own: a professor, a pair of boutique owners, friends who go out to lunch and share secrets. Yet we encounter these women only through the experiences of yet another sad sack man, Hernán. The professor is the wife who first seems perfect but eventually becomes impossible to please. The first boutique owner is a stranger who takes Hernán into her home, makes zipless love to him within hours, invites him to live with her that very night, and supports him on the money sent home by her seaman husband. Her friends make love to him with equal rapidity and don’t even spill the beans. There is a twist, to be sure, and “The Auroras” could be read as a punitive critique of male narcissism and desire — what happens when you get what you think you want — yet even in that reading, the woman is the mechanism of punishment, even as she profits from poor lost Hernan’s yearning.
These stories might be better read on their own than together; while Alarcon is a truly impressive writer, the sum here is less than the parts.
THE KING IS ALWAYS ABOVE THE PEOPLE
By Daniel Alarcón
Riverhead, 240 pp., $27
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’