July 2003

Michael Schaub

fiction

Stories by Oscar Casares

Short fiction has never really sold well in America, at least not since John Cheever monopolized the New York Times bestseller list for six months in 1978 with his brilliant, exhaustive collection of stories. And though Oscar Casares probably won't outsell Cheever anytime soon, his debut short story collection, Brownsville, has earned a great deal of respect from both critics and readers eager to discover a writer who can breathe life into a genre that many see as stagnating. Brownsville is unabashedly literary, yet it's being sold -- successfully -- at a chain of supermarkets in Texas. Only one in a million writers can pull off that balance of intelligence and populism. Oscar Casares is the one. You've probably never heard of the other 999,999.

Brownsville, Texas, is a small city on the Mexican border. Like the rest of the Rio Grande Valley, it's currently in the midst of a population boom. The nine stories in Brownsville seem to take place before all of this, when you could still imagine the small city as a large town. Casares is much more interested in emotional and psychological geography than physical geography, though, and his stories are mercifully free of long-winded, meandering descriptions of the landscape. The result is a book with a powerful sense of place, invoked more originally and subtly than one would reasonably expect for a young, first-time author.

Take, for instance, "Domingo," the story of a poor immigrant landscaper wrestling with the death of his beloved young daughter, killed in a fire. On his late daughter's birthday, Domingo wanders the streets of Brownsville trying to find a church, only to find all the doors have been locked. He eventually has to settle for a makeshift shrine erected around an alamo tree with the image of the Virgin Mary in its bark. Casares evokes Brownsville at night with an intensity and compassion that almost seems effortless.

But nothing in this book is effortless, least of all the characters -- Casares draws each of them with real affection and care; it's obvious he thinks of them as family. In "RG," the book's funniest story, the title character silently seethes for years over a hammer his neighbor borrowed and hasn't returned for years. RG deals with the situation with a passive-aggressive anger that looks a lot like obsession. When the neighbor uses RG's hammer to post a "Vote Reagan" yard sign, RG nearly loses it: "I'm not a political man, not anymore than the next Democrat on this block, but I came pretty close to walking over there and grabbing the hammer out of his hand." In the space of fourteen pages, Casares paints sympathetic portraits of both RG and his forgetful neighbor, so much so that the reader understands exactly why RG refuses to buy another hammer, as simple as that may be.

The rest of the stories follow suit. The title character of "Mr. Z" is the vengeful owner of a fireworks stand on the outskirts of town who employs a pair of eleven-year-old boys to work for him. In "Yolanda," a young boy deals with a nascent sexual attraction to his beautiful neighbor, who's married to an abusive Svengali. And the father and son in "Big Jesse, Little Jesse" deal with a strained relationship following the separation of Big Jesse and his wife. These are characters that stay with the reader long after the book is finished.

The centerpiece of Brownsville, though, is "Chango," an enormously affecting story of a young slacker, Bony, who befriends a monkey's head he finds on his family's lawn. Casares handles the story so smoothly, suspension of disbelief isn't even necessary. Bony's relationship with the dead chango is at once utterly believable and shockingly natural. A brilliant, heartbreaking story, "Chango" alone should cement a permanent place in American literature for Casares. That's not to say the other eight stories are unworthy of attention -- every single one is excellent. Casares writes with the unpretentious, conversational tone of a Texas Raymond Carver, but with an emotional intensity that Carver always shied away from.

Texas fiction is in dire need of a young savior. It's been too long since Cormac McCarthy and Reginald McKnight made their own electric debuts, and too many young writers believe that loading their stories up with cliched Texas imagery and twangy dialogue is enough to guarantee a permanent place in the canon. Oscar Casares could well be that savior. Brownsville is indeed a uniquely Texan book, but more than that, it's quintessentially American -- albeit an America too often ignored by the national press and literary establishment. No matter where you live, though, you can't afford to overlook this brilliant young writer. If you live in Texas, pick up a copy at your nearest H-E-B supermarket. If you live elsewhere, seek it out. It's well worth the effort.

Brownsville: Stories by Oscar Casares
Little, Brown
ISBN: 0316146803
191 Pages