I don't mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being 'ghetto,' because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status," a character in this new story collection tells his mom. "It's just that there's a culture here which is such that one can't be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There's no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It's a city of ... of ... philistines."
About another character, now a small-time drug dealer: "He was all books and football and basketball back then. He'd gotten a scholarship but came home when his dad got sick, and stayed here because Corpus seems to do that to you."
Place (in this collection, in and around Corpus Christi, Texas) provides the means to examine differences—in culture, class, education, age, relationships—and attempts to make connections. In the "philistine" quote above, a son has opened a culture gulf his mother will struggle to bridge; in the second quote, circumstance and the place itself have crippled the character.
In this, his first collection, Rene S. Perez II has depicted his home region with critical affection. The 13 stories are arranged by setting: The first three are set in the small fictional town of Greenton; one is on a ranch in the Kingsville area; several are set in Corpus Christi; and the final ones are in Austin. Their level of stylistic sophistication—and success—grows through the book as well.
The early Greenton stories, while appealing in concept and character, are a bit too sweet to be compelling. In "One Last Drive North," failing eyesight will force the town's only funeral director to retire. His last physical "drive north" also sets him in the emotional space between his past and his darkening future. In the inventive "Curses by Numbers," a guy goes on a binge because he got all the right lottery numbers, but on the wrong games; and in "Remember, Before You Go," a young Marine visits the neighbors before leaving town. You like the characters, and the writing is adroit, but the plots lack the rough patches that create satisfying tension.
By the first of the Corpus Christi stories, however, Perez has tightened the tension. In "The Art of Making Something out of Nothing," three knuckleheaded marijuana dealers luck onto a brick of cocaine. After one boozy, semi-stoned bad decision after another, they wake up in a stolen car stuck on a beach with a gun and the cocaine—as a sheriff's deputy approaches. Having ignored the cardinal rule of crime, to "break one law at a time," they'll need to think faster than they've shown themselves capable of.
Most of Perez's main characters are Hispanic; they're working-class or educated middle-class; their tastes and habits are those that other border-folks recognize. Perez uses a few to make some subtle political points.
In "AGROSOMAS," a story that takes place at the annual Mexican-American scholarship awards dinner at a huge cattle-turned-oil-ranch franchise, he makes a nod to Southwest history. While acknowledging the patronizing of the white rancher and the ranch's legacy of inequality, the educated point-of-view character can't distance himself from this place his family came from: His ancestors, the vaqueros, "broke the horses and herded the cattle into Texas before it was even called that."
The central character in the amusing short-short "Ridin' Like a Balla" is neither educated nor family-connected, but he has a goal with a plan, and he's not afraid to work toward it: In order to make his 1998 Grand Marquis "the hottest ride on the block," he'd simply buy the coolest possible tires and wheel rims. He could afford two, for passenger-side awe, and he'd get them from Rent a Tire, the local outfit with the lowest prices. Never mind it has the highest interest rates. From the opening paragraph, you know the story's about exploitation and gullibility, but, dang, you like the kid, his hustle and his spirit.
The final story, "Closeness to Taste," raises the longing for connection—and then complicates it with both a serious "ick" factor and lively imagination. "William started giving pieces of himself to the hungry citizens of Austin, Texas," it opens, "the first time he prepped dough at PizzaTex." Not to ruin the story, but two sweaty, dandruff-y guys kneading pizza dough can send you away musing on the nature of communion. That, and the nature of take-out.
Along These Highways introduces a sensitive new voice; it features an underrepresented cultural and regional group; and it promises increasingly deft, imaginative writing ... in or out of communion with Corpus Christi.