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Straddling Tension

Beth Alvarado writes about the problems of the human heart

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In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 1950, William Faulkner delivered this tragic assessment of the state of literature: "The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat."

Beth Alvarado has not forgotten.

In her first collection of short stories, Not a Matter of Love, Arizona writer Alvarado creates a hoard of characters whose suffering and triumph is as real and as tangible as the paper on which the book is printed. In the title story, "Not a Matter of Love," we meet Jackie, a woman whose stepfather, Paul, cares only for his missing rum, and whose mother, Louise, consistently tells her daughter that she cannot be loved by the kind of man Jackie thinks might: a Mexican named Armando. Louise advocates for her daughter to date Frank, a golf pro. Jackie's sense of isolation increases, and she is forced to recollect the joy of being with Armando on her own, solitarily fighting to realize what love is for her.

Here, Alvarado reveals one of her greatest strengths as a writer: her ability to be both inside and outside a character's psyche, sharing the innermost suffering and triumph of that character while remaining loyal, even omniscient, to the story as a whole.

Dealing with Jackie's inner turmoil and confusion about who to love and what love is, Alvarado writes, "Once, when they were making love, (Armando) stopped and pulled a book out from under the bed. Oh, he'd said, that's how you do it! She'd laughed. She'd never known it was OK to laugh while you were making love. He was nothing like Walker."

Walker, we learn at the start of the story, is Jackie's on-again, off-again boyfriend who becomes more of a stalker than any sort of love interest. He corners her in Jackie's kitchen while her mother is outside, and we are again both inside and outside Jackie's head: "Move it, Walker, your hand. He grins, no, make me, laughing." After Louise sees Walker cornering her daughter and does nothing, Jackie thinks to herself, "This must be love."

Through these background situations, Alvarado leads us to Jackie's triumphant, though still sad, departure from home to be with Armando. Jackie thinks to herself at one point, "It wasn't a matter of love, she wanted to tell her mother, it was a matter of living in her own skin."

Alvarado's great strength is exploring the intricate mazes of her characters' hearts. In "What Lydia Thinks of Roses," we meet a high school woman whose determination to rise above a boyfriend, Carlos--who only wants one thing--is both believable and steady. Alvarado's measured development of Lydia leads us to first understand her as a character who struggles with that all-consuming fire many teenage girls feel: the desire to please the boy, but feel confident as well.

As a high school teacher myself, the story becomes all too common: a young girl walking down the school hallway, afraid of the stares and gossip, tempted to give in to what the boy wants to feel some sense of self-worth. Alvarado, however, gives us Lydia's victory in a way which calls us to rally for her. Our muscles tense as we are prepared for the final scene--already hating high school as if we ourselves were back--when Lydia asserts her own humanity and womanhood in the face of all her bystanders.

"There were petals everywhere, petals falling all over the parking lot. Red petals. Petals scattering away in the wind. 'That,' Lydia said to Carlos, 'is what I think of roses.'" Alvarado's dénouement reveals a reversible action whereby Lydia destroys the roses given by her sexually hungry boyfriend (who has also, we learn, degraded her in public) and tramples the stereotype prescribed by high schools all over the country. Lydia's feat reveals the conflict of her human heart, and the triumph she achieves through it.

Whether describing a young boy whose sister has been shot and whose parents are separated or revealing two mothers who share children, and had their turn with the same husband, Alvarado is able to straddle tension in the hearts of her characters, presenting to us a world with a tapestry as rich as any that great short story writers have given.

Akin to Andre Dubus, Alvarado allows the full scope of what it means to be human to breathe, move and thrive on the page. Bypassing fear boldly, Alvarado has committed herself to tracing the desires, suffering and triumphs of the human heart. This, indeed, is the stuff of great literature.

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