Notes from an
American Life

Luis Alberto Urrea
(University of Arizona Press)
One of my friends says that the best published writing in America is no longer coming from Random House or Little, Brown or Harper & Row (they are all in the thrall of Stephen King and Wall Street) but from the university presses. I suspect he is right, and Nobody's Son is a fine example of that. Urrea has specialized in writing about that strange entrepôt called "The Border" --- the fifty-mile-wide strip that runs from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, and includes Tijuana, El Paso, San Diego, Ciudad Juarez, Tucson, Reynosa, Tecate, Mexicali, Brownsville --- and encompasses almost fifteen million people.

Urrea's writing is a combination of the best of Bukowski, Saroyan, Henry Miller, Rabelais, and The Beats; e.g., its funny, sad, wistful, mean, and on occasion, highly artful. Listen to this description of his father:

    When he made chili, he went for the world record heartstopping atomic recipe: four pork chops, two large cans of Dennison's chili, refried beans, red onions, chiles, a pound of monterey jack cheese, and a pan of Spanish rice...

    Before he left us, he would sit for hours playing his organ. Clad in blue pajamas, chain smoking, drinking cup after cup of black coffee, he'd play. Over and over, he'd play one song, trying to get it perfect. He'd go into a kind of trance, staring at the wall, or sitting with his head thrown back, eyes closed, smiling vaguely and oom-pa-pa-ing through Red Roses for a Blue Lady. He was dreaming, he said, of being the lounge organist in the Rip Van Winkle Room, a glass snifter full of dollar bills, and blonde American women leaning toward him as he played.

    At night, he ground his teeth. He ground them so hard that they broke in his mouth. Sometimes he swallowed the pieces. Sometimes he spit them out in the morning. By the time I was in my early teens, every tooth in his mouth was shattered. All that was left was a row of small stumps.

This is the same man who --- when Urrea was a child --- was intent on "making a man out of him," and did so by burning him with matches, throwing him in the ocean (even though he couldn't swim), and on his first day on a new bike, pushing him downhill, just letting him go until he wrecked (himself and the bicycle).

Nobody's Son is an olla podrida of whimsy and crudity, of tragedy and joy; and the ground, the structure, the central theme is words of two cultures, the United States and Mexico, intermixed with the words of all cultures and all times:

    When I moved to Clairemont in fifth grade, I was suddenly being called the following: beaner, taco-bender, pepper-belly, spic. My father had warned me about greaser and wetback. But these new words were spectacular and vivid. I couldn't figure out what we had done to make them so mad at us.

Words, words, words. Urrea is good with them (as he is delighting us with them, he is teaching them to students.) Nobody's Son begins with a learned description of the source of words, especially those words used by those Americans who presume to hate "spics" --- the same people who are utilizing a vocabulary that comes to them from all over the world. With wonderful inversion, Urrea gives us a heart-rending tale out of his boyhood, when his father calls to him, and he turns to look at him, and his father thrusts a burning match in his mouth, "searing the corner of his mouth...the body clawed at his face, screamed, and ran out of the room."

Then this:

    "Joke" is a Latin word. "God" is Old English. "Damn" is Latin. "Mother" is Old English, as is "Father," as is "Son."
    "Family" is Latin
    "Forgive" is English.

As an artful writer must, Urrea know how to create tension --- and to create pure joy. This is his description of the nuns who taught him in his first few years in school, nuns who wanted to be sure that all their charges were firmly grounded in the truth about heaven, and the truth about hell:

    In third grade, we were considered old enough to learn about the Rocky Path to Heaven, and the Superhighway to Hell. Holy cow --- the road to heaven was gnarly in the extreme, a luridly painted narrow mountain road winding up steeply, and studded with boulders. Actually, it looked exactly like the street my grandmother lived on in Tijuana. In the meantime, the road to hell was a four-lane, rush-hour boogie, populated with porkpie-hatted partiers speeding to their doom in convertible Buicks.

These were the same nuns who were intent on letting their pupils know that the Communists were coming:

    Apparently, shoe-pounding Soviets and bearded Cubans were about to invade the nation. According to the good sisters, their main goal in life was to force us to renounce Jesus. No! we children protested. They will torture you! the nuns warned us. We were still somewhat firm in our faith, but wanted to know what, exactly, was this torture deal?...The Communists were planning --- this must have come through the immense Nun Intelligence Agency --- to drag us behind trucks until we said we hated Jesus.

Nobody's Son is the third in a trilogy by Urrea. It is a bit jumbled. The three parts don't necessarily flow one from another, and tales from the present are intermixed with those of the past. But the writing is fine; and, best of all, it's pure heart.

--- Carlos Amantea

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