Western Avenue, Fred Arroyo's new collection of short fiction, is a quick, quiet and affecting work that painfully and beautifully captures the immigrant work experience in America.
It especially pays attention to the conflicts that arise between immigrant workers and those who depend on and exploit their labor, and among immigrants themselves. Far from heavy-handed, Western Avenue offers complex characters and detailed relationships without comment, polemic or blame, instead allowing the people who move through these stories the opportunity to speak for themselves.
Throughout Western Avenue, the same characters reappear at different times and stages in their lives. Arroyo—an assistant professor of English at Drake University in Iowa—could have created a novel given the overlap, but couching these vignettes as stories rather than chapters in a novel allows him some freedom with chronology and development. Indeed, each of the recurring characters gets developed, some more than others. Since the stories are linked mostly by character and not causality, the reader is generally willing to give the author more leeway in the associative leaps between stories. Arroyo also gains the reader's good graces with his ability to swiftly develop characters in great and meaningful detail.
Of Boogaloo, the character in the collection who recurs most often, we learn most of what we need to know in the first couple of pages of the second story. On his bookshelf are "a copy of M.F.K. Fisher's Letters, the well-traveled Comida Criollas, a cracked, leather-bound volume from the late eighteenth century on new Hispanio vegetation and foodstuffs, Fruiticas Paradisio, Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human, and the three volumes that make up Seneca's Moral Essays."
In a matter of pages, we also learn that Boogaloo is quite the cook, that he works at a restaurant, and that "he had not taken a drink in 10 years and had not seen his daughter in over 15." Like any good writer of short fiction, Arroyo allows his characters' possessions and surroundings to describe them rather than his own pen. As Boogaloo appears in later stories (as a younger man), little more is done to develop him visually. Yet knowing that he will later be sober makes his drinking, and the results of his drinking in the past, seem all the more poignant. Indeed, rarely do we get more than a cursory physical description of Arroyo's characters. Instead, their actions and words make them seem real.
Besides his knack for character development, Arroyo's lyrical, poetic sensibilities make the stories feel transcendent. One way that he does this is through the use of a repeating image. There are a number of images that create a feeling of familiarity throughout the collection—how one character lights a cigarette, the wide variety of foods, the act of eating—but perhaps the most affecting image is that of the ox. About a third of the way through the book, we get the image of "a dark green broken by egglike hills of red clay dirt, a team of white oxen lumbering across a field, their silver haunches powdered with dust." Just a few pages later, one of the recurring characters, Ernest, recalls an evening out with his father as a young boy:
He put his arm around my shoulder, his face serious, and then once again he began to tell me about the white ox chained to the mill on the outskirts of the cane field. Sometimes red dust rose from the deep path the ox had worked into the ground. Sometimes the path was filled with rainwater, the ox's belly wet and gray with rain. Changó never spoke of the tiredness in its eyes, the sweaty, rippling skin of the ox.
The laboring ox—perhaps a metaphor for the strength and perseverance of the immigrant laborers, as well as the exploitation they face for their trouble—appears multiple times throughout the collection, each time seeming more agonized as the stories deepen and weave together the struggles of their protagonists. But, again, Arroyo's skill and discipline with the image makes it all the more powerful. The characters never tell us the importance of the image, or what it is supposed to mean. Instead, the reader is invited to ponder its possible meanings and place in the characters' lives.
In his accomplished blending of narrative and lyric impulses, Fred Arroyo has crafted a collection of stories that deserves careful reading to tease out all of the nuances and techniques that make the package so engaging.