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NEW VOICE, OLD WARS–short stories by Daniel Alarcon

In the best collection of short stories I’ve read in years, Daniel Alarcón has purchased himself a place among the leading young American authors. His well-reviewed new novel Lost City Radio may erase the word “young” from that phrase, though. I haven’t read it  yet.  I think the guy’s got it all and that we’re in for years of delicious reading.

Alarcon’s background is unique in that it is so unremarkable for a guy who writes about such exotic locations and subjects Yes, he was born in Lima (Peru, not Ohio), but he was raised in Birmingham (Alabama, not England.) His parents are both physicians, and he traveled an establishment educational process including Columbia University and an Iowa Writers’ Program masters. You can find insights into his thinking manner in an interview with Latina. Click here to check that out. But to the book.

From some of the stories, you’d think Alarcón was not a middle class university American, but a South American street kid cum revolutionary who was somehow smuggled into this country and learned his craft in night school after a full day of sweeping hallways in a middle school somewhere. Not all the stories are set in Peru, but those that are have the flavor of truth. Whether they would ring true to a Peruvian urchin, I can’t say, but there’s a solid reality here that seems authentic to this gringo.

Whether the characters are loose on the streets or fighting in the jungle, we’re right there, and we know why they are where they are. Alarcón makes us witness to some gruesome events, but he doesn’t judge his people. He just understands them and wants us to understand them as well. Whether the characters are directly part of the Peruvian civil wars or not, they’re all affected, all feeling the conflict’s reverberations all the time. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of both Iraq and Vietnam, though  the Peruvian edition was and is being fought on Peruvian soil. Alarcón treats the personal side of all this. There are no political speeches or  big rallies or posturing. There are just people trying to live out their lives and sometimes their convictions in the middle of forces they can’t seem to control whether they try or not.

But the book is not all war either. Not by a long shot. My favorite story, for example, “City of Clowns,” is a funny and wrenching   identity tale of a man trying to make peace with the death of his wayward father. “Third Avenue Suicide” is set in New York and involves a tortured interracial relationship complicated by the onset of the woman’s debilitating illness.

Alarcón’s prose is simple and clear. Take the beginning of “Third Avenue Suicide.”

    They’d been living in the apartment for ten days when David was first asked to disappear. This was the arrangement they’d agreed upon, and he would do so without complaint.

   Two uncomplicated sentences that state simple facts, raise a myriad of questions, and pull the reader right into the situation. He evokes scenes with simple details:

A breeze carried some candy wrappers toward the park at the top of the hill. Some older men stood on the corner, thumbing through a newspaper they’d laid out on the hood of a parked car. 

     He can get poetic from time to time, but lyricism is not his general mode. in the same story, the apartment that appears in the first sentence becomes almost a character.     Reena and David had rented the apartment on a sunny day when it appeared cheery. However

     It fooled them….Not once [did it approach] the bright golden light of the first day. “Indifferent to light” was how Reena described the apartment. 

   This darkness proves emblematic of the relationship and its circumstances. So Alarcón is a painter who uses simple line and form, not too much color or texture, but whose final product is rich, evocative, memorable. As memorable as some of his superb titles. “A Science for Being Alone.” “A Strong Dead Man.”

Read this book.


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