I was excited to find a copy of Luis Negrón's first collection, Mundo Cruel, translated into English by Suzanne Jill Levine, the fantastic biographer and translator of Manuel Puig's, especially considering the short blurb on the back by Antonio Jiménez Morato: "Negrón is perhaps the most intimate and unsuspected heir to Manuel Puig," an assessment I find partially offensive and distracting. This smart collection of short fiction put out by Seven Stories Press looks and feels like a poetry collection--it's a mere 91 pages of fairly large and easily read font, 24 lines to a page, a good 10 to 15 lines shorter than most contemporary books of poetry. Still, it's size is part of its appeal. I love it actually. You can carry it around with you. You can hide it under your pillow for a night.
Jiménez Morato's assessment is bothersome because once you begin to read Negrón's collection, perhaps the only solid similarity between he and Puig is the fact that they're both gay. I'd have to think more about this, but my initial reaction was irritation. The only story in Negrón's that even approaches a stylistic inheritance is an epistolary one, "For Guayama," in which the writer is leaving letters and messages for a friend who owes him money, money he needs to pay to have his dog's fur coat treated so that it can be embalmed and stuffed. Otherwise, the stories are built on the clear voices of its characters who tell them. He might have some debt to Puig there, but I thought more of Reinaldo Arenas' great tragicomedy, The Color of Summer, a scathing depiction of gay life under Castro in which all our homosexual versions are caricatures running around in the flamboyant madness of a persecution from which the only escape is death, or America. It's dark humor is funny and terrifically sad at the same time, everyone, including Arenas, is laughing at the monstrous condition of the world in which identity itself is heroic, and the punishment for difference is extreme suffering. What can we do, but put on our wigs and pull down our pants and give in to the pageantry of our inner lives and laugh loudly in the face of it?
So too, the characters in Negrón's stories are themselves. The whole book is set in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Negrón's hometown, and he does a stunning job of opening the doors to private conversation, private lives, and he transforms the town into a complicated maze of brutality faced with exuberant promiscuity. This is a portrait of the gay life of Santurce, and I'm so grateful for it, mostly because it feels like a portrait of my own gay life here in the states. This is the genius of Negrón's work--he's given voice to the gay kid beaten up at home and at school, voice to his fearful homophobic religious zealot relatives, voice to the gossipy wit-lipped queen, voice to the insecure and overly-quaffed and unloved, voice to the man who's lover dies, voice to the macho father who loves his gay son no matter what. These are touching vignettes, striking for their stark humor and the vulnerability of characters who you both like and dislike at the same time. Take the old gossip of "La Edwin," who can't wait to call every friend he has and tell the story of La Edwin, the closet case, who tries to seduce a straight man and fails:
"He said the part that bothered him most was all that wasted energy. . . You know he talks that way. Waste? Waste? Girl, you don't know what waste is. But, I'm going to tell you. 1985. Seven. Not one, not two. Seven of my best friends including my lover--and no more and no less than 8 months of being in a relationship--all died! Pum, pum, pum! One after the other. That, honey, is what I call a waste. So, girl, stop with all these experiments and nonsense and accept what you are. Queer. Q-U-E-E-R. Your'e a queer. 100%."
As a collection, Negrón's builds quickly and hits its peak with the penultimate story, "The Garden," the story of a man who lives with his lover dying of AIDS and his sister. You'd think with such a morbid topic these stories would be bereft and sentimental, but no, they're filled with sharp portrayals of real people who have to face the real miseries of life with laughter, in love with their own perfections, and he makes a celebratory condition of the monstrosity of our "unacceptable" lifestyles. Negrón isn't afraid of complication, and his portraits illustrate without judgment, giving us depictions often opposing viewpoints without allowing any of them to have complete power over another. In the title story he revels in the juxtaposition of two friends, one vain and insecure, the other melting into this first lover in a public parade kiss.
Mundo Cruel is an excellent read. I'd love to give you a copy. My hopes are that Negrón will continue to write, and to sustain the voices of his stories. If I had a criticism, it might be that the book is prematurely published, it goes down fast if memorably. I can imagine it 400 pages long, a novel comparable to something Puig or Arenas would have written, so that the portrait of Santurce takes on the dimension of the pageant our private lives deserve.
Steal it if you can.
. . . . . . .
This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
- ▼ 2013 (4)
- ► 2008 (28)
- ► 2007 (40)