Bridging small-town life in late-1950s’ Bakersfield, California, and an iconic film where a woman meets her bloody fate in a shower at a roadside motel, the author has fashioned a jewel of a novel as precise as it is ingenious, as poignant as it is tragic. While the Hollywood storytellers, the Director and the Actress (who will be forever linked to her terrifying shower scene) scout locations in the desert landscape, Munoz salts the filmmaking particulars with an unusual love story gone horribly wrong: “The true complications of being in love show themselves in flashes.”
Bakersfield flourishes with a brief spate of tourism before it settles into the dreary routine of a city on the edge of the future, the hardscrabble existence of a place soon to be bypassed by history and the freeway that renders such an out-of-the-way main street irrelevant, a storefront-lined avenue of family businesses buffeted by the bitter winds of winter and the baking heat of unrelieved summer. There is little to capture the imagination here, only residents like Teresa Garza: employed in a shoe store, trotted from the back room only when her Spanish-language skills are needed with a customer, returning home each night to her small apartment over the bowling alley, leaving early each morning to stare in shop windows at things she can never afford, covertly watched by Mexican workers - one in particular, who leaves small presents at her door.
When Dan Watson, the most handsome and available bachelor in town, begins to court Teresa, everyone whispers about the couple in the throes of new love, imagining the two together: “Maybe her own life could be an existence others could dream about.” But no one can imagine the tragedy that awaits the star-struck pair. Munoz beautifully captures the lovers and other pivotal characters, the limitations of Teresa’s life before Dan, the jealous coworker who begrudges Teresa’s happiness, Dan Watson’s mother’s diminished expectations, the day the Actress stops for a meal in the café and is waited on by Dan’s mother, Arlene Watson.
Munoz’s intimate descriptions of the interior lives of his female characters infuse this novel with magic: Teresa’s surprise at being chosen by Dan; Arlene Watson’s lonely daily trek from café to the roadside motel, her husband’s legacy when he left wife and son; the Actress imagining her character’s motivations in the film, her good fortune in having this career. Like the desert wind, sadness permeates the small, encumbered worlds of those who struggle for a little joy, where lovers exchange affectionate glances and a song, but a moment’s rage extinguishes hope.
Whether describing Teresa’s sleepless night serenaded by Ricky Nelson on her bedside radio, a faint breeze lifting the curtain at the window, or Arlene’s scarce recollections of a brother and a husband long gone, the motel sign blinking against the night; the Director’s precise directions when the Actress performs the fatal shower scene that will cause moviegoers to scream in fright, or the fated lovers’ contretemps that ends in violence, Munoz writes with a skill that is mesmerizing. His seductive mélange of language and images awaken the distant past, Bakersfield pulsing with a young girl’s dreams, an old woman’s inability to change, and the essence of small-town America caught in time like a precious artifact . A lovely, haunting story.