The meek don't inherit the Earth in Aaron Michael Morales' unsettling debut novel, Drowning Tucson. They'd be lucky just to cling to it until it's shoveled over their faces.
Morales, who was born in Tucson in 1976 and teaches writing and literature at Indiana State University, sets this episodic novel in 1980s Tucson, in a midtown neighborhood controlled by a gang he calls the Latin Kings. Unconventional in narrative structure (rather than following a single, linear story line, "story" emerges from the interplay of 10 stand-alone chapters, characters from which impinge obliquely on each other), it depicts lives that are relentlessly and hopelessly brutal and brutalized.
Morales offers the reader a kind of choose-your-own-adventure approach: The "Tables of Contents" suggest six different arrangements. (In an interview, Morales states that he shared the book with friends and colleagues by arranging the chapters in different orders, according to their personalities.) You can read it from front to back as "The Purist," from back to front as "The Deconstructionist," or in various suggested orders to appeal to the "Skeptic," "Quixotic," "Zealot" or "Downtrodden."
Fluidly central to the action is the Nuñez family—the four sons of a Latin King himself—and "The Purist" reading introduces them in the first chapter, "Torchy's." It opens on the day that the youngest son, Felipe, is to be inducted into the gang. A Mansfeld Middle School kid raised for the life, Felipe does not, in fact, want to join. He secretly reads books and likes a girl who's different from the rucas who hang around the gang members. It's not that he fears the ritual beating he'll take from his brothers and their cohorts; it's the fated nature of it, the reality that he'd then "be one forever. Until he died, or went to prison, or got married and found a job fixing cars or working in a restaurant."
You like Felipe, even when he kicks the drunk in the head or helps burgle the gentle neighbor, so you're glad when he runs off. You cringe as he misinterprets "company" on Miracle Mile, gets himself beaten up and finds himself penniless. And then you want to look away as he gives up. Morales picks up the pace in the action, drops punctuation from his syntax and sends Felipe hurtling toward the story's inevitable end.
Felipe's is the pattern of all these stories: Something in the character of each protagonist—a minor character flaw or a situation beyond their control—kicks in and sends them spiraling toward personal tragedy.
Morales fully realizes his central characters and creates unforgettable—if at times unbearable—scenes. Some characters have personal demons they themselves can't identify—Manny Torres, for example. A respected young Air Force captain married to a beautiful woman and the affectionate father of two, Torres is increasingly tormented by an inexpressible longing that manifests as physical pressure in his chest, so he goes to a strip club one night hoping to see another airman. A bar packed with alcohol- and lust-crazed airmen spurs Torres to embark on a series of actions from which he could never recover.
Some of the stories play out quickly, but others unfold over time. In "Kindness," a gay teenager from Sierra Vista runs away to Tucson after his one friend is gay-bashed to death by a gang of jocks. A sensitive, cookie-baking, flower-arranging kid, he puts his creativity to work meticulously plotting acts of revenge on each of the bashers.
Graphic scenes of beatings and sex shows are fueled by mindless testosterone in these pieces. Their subject matter highlights humanity's basest proclivities—pedophilia, homophobia, racism, corruptions in law enforcement and religion. The powerful rule over the world, and the weak or innocent have little protection in Drowning Tucson's society.
Morales' tales of violence, poverty, oppression, intimidation and cruelty read like Old Testament warnings, but he offers little to mitigate their depressing effects. In her eponymous story, "Rainbow" might provide some relief. But for the sexually abused, abandoned 15-year-old hooker who's tormented by apocalyptic dreams of the evils of Tucson being cleansed by a biblical flood, and who sees God's eyes on a high-rise downtown, there's no divine intervention to be had in her plagued existence.
Morales' vision shakes up the comfortable. The novel is impressive; his writing is powerful; his message is layered. But the reading experience is trying. I, for one, couldn't handle reading about another unanswered gang-rape or brick to a skull ... however deft the prose.