This is either an unusually good self-published book, or an unusually poorly-edited traditionally-published book. Set in the Bahamas, probably around the 1990s, it follows the adventures of a young man named Gavin Blake (whose name looks enough like the author's to give me pause), who despite being born in the islands is not considered a citizen because his father was American. Though college-educated, Gavin takes a job caretaking a yacht for the well-off Jacob Thesinger, and witnesses lawlessness and corruption firsthand.
The insider look at life on the Bahamas is quite interesting, though it’s a grim vision, centering largely on rich people preoccupied with rising crime rates, and on government corruption and ineffectiveness. The vividness of Buckner’s writing, meanwhile, is impressive; he sets an immersive scene, virtually transporting readers to the Bahamas. Gavin’s role in the plot is a bit weak though – the blurb definitely oversells it with his “struggle to do the right thing,” which amounts to voicing a couple of ineffectual protests to Jacob’s bad behavior toward the end while continuing to enable it. A good editor could have whipped this plot into excellent shape, but as is it’s a bit flabby.
But the need for better editing is most glaring in the writing itself. I think the book was copyedited by spellcheck, and not the current version that highlights grammatical errors too. That’s the only way I can explain the sheer frequency of misused words, which occur on average every couple of pages throughout. “We starred out at the sea,” “people collapsed and slid, taking other’s with them,” “A long main of white hair blew about his shoulders,” “he wore white leather Weejuns without sox,” “They’re faces shone,” the list goes on and on. But the thing that most makes it look like an amateur effort are the overblown, ponderous “philosophical” passages that say nothing much. Here’s an example:
“We don’t have the energy to feed all our hungers. We choose one and try to make it perfect. One thing to polish. One thing to shine. A single path to keep to over the turmoil of years. That we have just this one choice is intimidating. Some never decide. Thesinger had chosen his path. He knew who he was and I envied that. But once you begin to feed that lonely burn, it becomes law.”
Which starts out talking as if it’s describing a universal condition, but changes gears halfway to make it specific to one character, all without describing human behavior in a way that resonated with my real life experience at all.
That said, I don’t want to come down too hard on this book. My expectations for it were rock-bottom – only four libraries in the United States even have it (thank you Interlibrary Loan!) – and on that basis I was rather pleasantly surprised. Dialogue and some action move the story along, and the vividness of the writing helps a lot. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but in the course of my world books challenge I’ve read much worse. This book has plenty of potential; with a good editor to polish it up it might have shone.
Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot, though a number of issues bothered me. The author, a journalist, follows the lives of three young Mexican-born women living in Colorado for several years, beginning just before they finish high school. Two of the girls are undocumented, having been brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents at a young age; despite their intelligence and motivation, their immigration status creates myriad barriers to living a normal life. The third has a similar history, but comes from a family that was able to obtain legal status, and the differences in opportunity sometimes put a barrier between her and her friends.
This book is not a representative look at the lives of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. (I would love to read a book like that, but it doesn’t appear that one exists.) These girls are exceptional, able to overcome the barriers that poverty and family circumstances put in their way, perhaps because they have such a strong support system in each other. The author does an excellent job, though, of bringing them to life on the page, getting to know them and their lives and telling an engaging story. I really enjoyed reading the book, found the author’s style readable and compelling, and became invested in the protagonists. The pages flew by.
That said, it has its issues. First, there's the degree to which it is influenced and held back by the career of the author’s husband, then mayor of Denver and currently governor of Colorado. Immigration was a hot topic in Colorado at the time of writing (the book was published in 2009), and Thorpe even writes about her articles being used against her husband by his political opponents. In the same paragraph, she insists that she opposes illegal immigration, largely from seeing how their lack of status limits the girls’ opportunities. Thorpe visits Yadira’s family in their hometown in Mexico and knows very well that however curtailed her opportunities in the U.S., she would have had even less of a chance there, so I don't believe her; either she's not thinking her opinions through or what she actually opposes are the circumstances that make illegal immigration necessary. In another cringeworthy passage, she observes that some critics called then-U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo “a modern-day Nazi, but . . . I did not think he could be so easily dismissed. His critics failed to acknowledge the congressman’s considerable charm,” as illustrated by an anecdote in which he makes a joke. I can’t tell whether she’s honestly stupid enough to believe that charm is inconsistent with hate, or is just struggling vainly to look “balanced.”
Either way, her discomfort with being the mayor’s wife crops up a lot, for a book that isn’t about her – in another unfortunate passage, she compares her life to the girls’ because both are defined by other people’s decisions – and she closes the acknowledgments with the opinion that “In truth, writers and politicians should never marry, so at odds are the two endeavors.” Based on this book I think she is right, and awful as it sounds, the fact that she and her husband divorced before she published another book makes me more likely to read her other work.
Perhaps because of her husband, or perhaps because she was a journalist still feeling out the transition to author, Thorpe chooses to spend much of the book reporting on the immigration debate, rather than contributing to it. Where other authors would supplement the human drama with their own research by interviewing other immigrants, providing relevant statistics, or tracing the history of immigration policy, and ultimately would make an argument or policy proposal of their own, Thorpe just describes the political situation, for instance, by going to the statehouse for a floor debate on an immigration-related bill and quoting what various state representatives have to say on the topic, or by attending yet another Tancredo event. This is not very enlightening – anyone likely to read this book already knows the contours of the immigration debate – and seems to equate immigration opponents’ opinions to the girls’ lives.
Finally, for an author who is clearly sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, Thorpe sure likes to call people “illegals,” with a frequency that made it nails-on-a-chalkboard for me. Marisela and Yadira are collectively “the illegal girls,” a discussion of a court case will say that “the judge ruled in favor of the illegal schoolchildren,” and so on. I wonder what the girls – Marisela in particular is an activist – made of that.
It speaks to the quality of Thorpe's writing, though, that despite all these issues, I’m still interested in reading her other books. She sounds a bit obnoxious as a person, but she can sure tell a story, and does a great job of finding and getting to know people with different perspectives (including the woman whose identity was stolen by one of the girls’ relatives). While I would have made different recommendations had I been Thorpe’s editor, I still recommend this book.
I struggled with how to rate this book. On the one hand, this collection of 43 short stories is brilliant. The writing is clear, vivid, engaging and insightful. The author clearly has a deep understanding of people and how they work, and has been around the block a few times. The settings – mostly the American Southwest, the Bay Area and Mexico – come to life so that you can practically see, sometimes even taste them. And there are some really excellent, tightly-written stories here. They are often melancholy – dealing with alcoholism, difficult family relationships, social injustice – but written with a freshness and empathy that, for me, kept them from ever feeling too dark. A few standouts (not an exhaustive list):
“A Manual for Cleaning Women”: A woman describes her various jobs cleaning houses for the wealthy and her daily routine, while the tragic end to her last relationship is slowly revealed.
“Tiger Bites”: A young woman who has just separated from her husband goes to Mexico for a back-alley abortion, and upon realizing she can’t go through with it, is tasked with the care of a young girl.
“Good and Bad”: A teenage expat in Chile is drawn into the orbit of a socialist teacher.
“Friends”: A single working woman struggles to make time to spend with an older couple who seem alone, only to discover that they think they’re doing her a favor.
“Mijito”: A teenage girl follows her lover from Mexico to the Bay Area, only to be abandoned with a child in the worst possible conditions – a realistic portrayal of the life of an uneducated, impoverished immigrant.
“502”: An alcoholic leaves her car on the street, where it crashes into the car of her alcoholic friends (fortunately, neither car was occupied at the time).
So I don’t disagree that Lucia Berlin is a hidden gem of an author. But what drove me batty about this collection is that virtually every story seems to be taken from her life, and features a protagonist whose life is consistent with Berlin’s own distinctive biography: the early years in the mining towns; growing up with her alcoholic mother and grandparents in El Paso during WWII; being kicked out of multiple schools; the teenage years living a privileged life in Chile; college in New Mexico; an early marriage that produced two sons and soon ended; two more marriages (one spent primarily in New York and abandoned for the third husband in Mexico) that also ended, leaving her a single mother of four sons; moving to the Bay Area and taking jobs as a high school teacher, hospital switchboard operator and ward clerk, cleaning woman and physician’s assistant; the alcoholism; the scoliosis; the difficult, alcoholic mother with pretensions of class; moving in with her disowned younger sister in Mexico City to care for her while the sister was dying of cancer; the writing; eventually moving to Boulder. Sometimes names are changed, sometimes not; the sister is always named Sally, the oldest sons always Ben and Keith, the mother’s family always Moynihans and the flamboyant cousin always Bella Lynn; the younger sons’ names sometimes vary, as does the protagonist’s own (sometimes she is Lucia, sometimes not; Carlotta is a recurring alternative).
And that didn’t really work for me – having all the stories be about the author, or at least, about characters who had lived the author’s life (the two largely superfluous introductory essays argue that the stories aren’t entirely autobiographical because she changed some details and otherwise exercised creative license). What I enjoy in short story collections is the boundless possibility, reading about different people in different situations reading different lives. When all of the stories are about the same character, those possibilities are hemmed in, and the stories begin to feel repetitive. Some don’t really have a plot at all, but are simply musings on the author’s life and relationships: in “Mama” for instance, the narrator and her sister Sally discuss their memories of their mother and complicated feelings about her, rehashing what we’ve already seen in other stories. Stories often include superfluous details, as if the author knew too much about her own life to include only the information relevant to a 10-page story.
So that was frustrating; I wished Berlin had just written a novel or a memoir. Only in a couple of stories out of the 43 is the protagonist’s life actually inconsistent with Berlin’s. Three of them begin with a narrator who is very obviously not her, and I started to get excited, only to find upon reading further that her avatar was the second narrator and/or another primary character. Granted, some of my disappointment likely stems from expectations; if the stories were arranged chronologically and the book presented as a semi-autobiographical collection, I might have enjoyed it more.
So, do I recommend this? Sure – it is excellent writing and you know now what it is, so read it if that appeals to you. There is no doubt excellence here.