July 2010

Dustin Luke Nelson


Drowning Tucson by Aaron Michael Morales

In Drowning Tucson, debut novelist Aaron Michael Morales proves to be a visionary young writer with an ability to see the big picture. The novel is a portrait of Tucson, Arizona, Morales's former home. He sees a wealth of source material within the city, from major events like murders and the lives of military figures, to some of its smallest and, some might say, most insignificant moments. The jacket compares the book to David Simon’s The Wire, which is a tall order, but may be more apt than it seems on the surface. The novel is episodic, brutal, and honest without glorifying violence or attempting to fight against a political or social establishment. It illuminates life in urban America, and it certainly points out problems, but it’s observational, not preachy.

Drowning Tucson is a series of vignettes, short stories, that serve to parse the life of its protagonist: the city of Tucson. Place is significant. It helps define an individual; we move to places that in some way highlight our virtues or vices -- and this is often taken for granted in novels. New York becomes a default location that doesn’t always carry much bearing on the story outside of that it is supposed to let the reader know that anything is possible. Morales takes location to a very specific ends, using it not to define his characters, but to reveal how characters define place. There are layers of meaning forcibly asserted on locations by the ways we interact with them, and Morales makes that painfully clear.

The strip clubs on Tucson's Miracle Mile are simultaneously the envy of naďve high school boys, home of a frightening sexual awakening for another student on the run from a gang, the source of shame for an army colonel, the home of weekend camaraderie to his underlings, and a place of demeaning misery to some of the employees. Morales is able to place the multifaceted individualistic symbolism of location into context. He reveals that a city is whatever fear, love, crime, shame, jobs, architecture, homelessness, or joy it contains. It is everything from the exhilarating to the mundane. Nothing is truly insignificant to the identity of a city, and Morales is able to make the notion of nothing being insignificant exciting.

Drowning Tucson draws you into its minor characters. Many of the characters disappear in one story only to re-emerge on the peripheries of someone else’s story. But every sighting is illuminating as the novel jumps through time and locations. There are stories of loss and triumph, yet a bigger picture emerges: Both the tragicomedy of human life and the over-looked, or overly-subjectively observed, life of a city as a breathing organism comprised of all of the tiny bits of life beating inside its walls. Morales’s Tucson is, like all cities, full of personal victories, promotions, friends as well as murder, rape, and drugs.

Morales provides his own map of Tucson in the table of contents, a map through the novel that is variable and invites the reader to navigate the city as they will. He offers six different chronologies that the reader can chose to approach the book from, based on your personality. There are chronologies “For the Zealot,” “For the Skeptic,” “For the Deconstructionist,” “The Purist,” “The Quixotic,” and “The Downtrodden.” Each of these chronologies rearranges the stories and the experience of the reader. Ever the pragmatist, I read as The Purist, front cover to back cover. But it’s impossible to resist the urge to look back at the possibilities left behind after you finish each story and see how it fits into the variable picture that Morales paints. You must wonder how The Deconstructionist will view Tucson if you had only taken another path. Like many of the characters you have to wonder how much of our perception and how much of our lot has been determined by those choices that we cannot turn back from.

The book is desperate, full of misery of the degree you might expect reading turn-of-the-century Russian literature. There are gang members beating their own brother to death, a pedophile father who abandons his family to drive an ice cream truck, a young gay high school student whose lover is brutally killed and who must take to the streets of Tucson to stay alive. The stories shift point of view rapidly like a television show. You might get stories from four different characters within a story all centering on the same event. But beyond that, Morales is incredibly adept at shifting point of view within the scene -- from paragraph to paragraph you hop consciousnesses, and it feels natural, you are the all-seeing city inside of the book, and for that clarity of vision and mastery of perspective Drowning Tucson is more than merely notable. It’s a beautiful fever dream deftly actualized.

Drowning Tucson by Aaron Michael Morales
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 1566892406
330 Pages

Dustin Luke Nelson is a founding editor of InDigest Magazine and a writer living in Queens. His writing has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Guernica, Intentionally Urban, Film Forward, and elsewhere. He lives in the digital here: dustinlukenelson.com.