Luis Rodriguez’s latest effort is a collection of short stories set in East L.A., America’s very own third-world enclave in the midst of the wealthiest state in the nation. This is the same turf where Rodriguez’s very successful earlier work, the semi-autobiographical Always Running, took place. But these stories are much less authentic-sounding than Always Running. They read a lot like writing class exercises, in fact. One can almost hear the teacher telling the class, “Now, write a happy one. How about a lady heroine? Three thousand words, please.” Not that there are no flashes of brilliance -- bits of language, bittersweet flashes of the joy in the midst of a hard life, obvious knowledge of the territory -- but taken as a whole, this work feels forced.
One of those brilliant flashes is “Finger Dance”, the fourth story and the best of the lot. It is the story of a father, hardworking and honorable but unable to connect with his kids on any meaningful level, now facing a slow death from stomach cancer. His kids struggle to come to grips with their upbringing
and with this difficult man who reared them. Torn between wishes that he would just die and get it over with and yearnings for a fantasy past that might have been, they wait by his bedside. In the end, the father makes a touching gesture to reach them that is heartbreaking yet somehow so hopeful, and everything is alright.
“Sometimes You Dance With a Watermelon” is another high spot. Rodriguez recognizes the dreams that can live even through years of abuse and poverty, and shows his readers in a grandmother’s impromptu show-off mambo for her granddaughter.
The stories are not all happy endings, though. The low-rent district problems are all there -- poverty, alcohol, substandard housing, drugs, gangs. Rodriguez has this down pat. He is right on, authentic. And the people of the barrio are all here
-- the illegals, the cholos, the hard-working family men and the ex-cons. There are mothers and grandmothers, the backbone of their families, young girls in trouble, and the enemy
-- the migra, the cops. Rodriguez writes in the true lingo of the streets, in the rolling, funky Spanglish of the border states, replete with gang talk and gritty street description.
But, as is sometimes the problem with short stories, these tales just kind of quit. They are not really finished. Not a complete deal. They are just tiny slices of a life -- tone, mood, bits and pieces -- that leave you asking, “And then what?” Rodriguez doesn’t tell us that here, though. It looks like we’ll just have to wait, fingers crossed, for his next work.