Stories

Characters at war and in danger

 

Writer’s debut collection is original and fantastical.

Many of the stories in Manuel Gonzales’ impressive debut collection come with killer first lines that reveal all we need to know about their contents. The eponymous tale opens with a humble confession: “The truth of the matter is: I have managed to make my wife very, very small.” Pilot, Copilot, Writer also saves its bombshell for the end of the sentence: “We have been circling the city now at an altitude of between seven thousand and ten thousand feet for, according to our best estimates, around twenty years.” All of Me is the most outlandish of the lot: “The zombie in me would like to make a few things clear.” Gonzales cuts quickly to the chase and entices us into one intriguingly bizarre parallel universe after another.

The stronger stories showcase Gonzales’ fecund imaginative abilities. There are true moments of Kafkaesque absurdity and Borgesian fantasy, but also hints that Gonzales is tracing that long line of Russian surrealists, from Gogol’s madcap antics to Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s bleak little fairy tales. Wakeful dreams darken into living nightmares. Confusion and clarity are equally dangerous. We learn about the rituals of the Sebali tribe, the topography of the “strange planet” of Capra II and a dead language called Ostrogothic.

However, for all Gonzales’ inventiveness, certain stories feel too much like a variation on the same theme. The hunt for “bunker beasts” and alien swamp monsters in Life on Capra II is little more than a video game shoot-’em-up. In the grisly Escape From the Mall, a group of shopper-survivors fight off a marauding horde of evil undead.

But the remaining stories carry this collection triumphantly. Gonzales’ trick is to juxtapose overblown fantastical incidents with real, humdrum existence and human emotion. In one of the best stories, One-Horned & Wild-Eyed, a Texan called Ralph drinks beer, avoids finding a job and squabbles with his wife — and is the proud owner of a unicorn.

Gonzales’ prose is functional rather than beguiling, shorn of stylistic tricks, but his true wizardry lies in his ideas, right down to the smallest detail. Ralph feeds his unicorn fairy dust (that is, “ground-up fairies”). The plane that has been circling around Dallas for 20 years is kept airborne with “perpetual oil.” The scientist who has shrunk his wife attempts to bring her back with his assortment of “engorgement and enlargement solutions.”

In the last story there is a moment when Gonzales’ narrator explains what could be his creator’s credo, how we need “moments when our lives are upended by violent tragedy, monsters, zombies, because without them, how would we meet the men and women of our dreams, how would we make up for the sins of our pasts, how would we show our true natures — brave, caring, strong, intelligent?” True natures are exposed and explored in these pithy, fiendish tales. It pays to suspend disbelief, dive right in and revel in the mayhem.

Malcolm Forbes reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished A. Scott Berg’s biography of Woodrow Wilson, which was excellent. Now I’m into Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit. They both fill in a big hole in American history for me.”

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">Updike.</span> Adam Begley. Harper. 576 pages. $29.99.

    Biography

    Biography offers an enlightening view of John Updike’s work

    Biography offers an enlightening view of his work

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">A TRUST BETRAYED:</span> The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families. Mike Magner. Da Capo. 299 pages. $27.50.

    Nonfiction

    Tiny victims of a conspiracy of silence

    One of the saddest places in America has to be the humble stretch of ground at a Jacksonville, N.C., cemetery called “Baby Heaven.” Paul Stasiak, a U.S. Marine, and his wife, Darrell, buried their stillborn daughter, Eileen Marie, there in September 1966.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category