Thursday, June 9, 2016

On "Painted Cities" by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski ***

This collection focuses on a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. As its strongest, I got a real sense of the neighborhood and the people who lived there, but many of the pieces seem more like vignettes than stories and don't cohere that well. Throughout, we get a feel for a kind of fourth-world place where there are dreams but where there is also a kind of hopelessness that will never let those dreams come into being, save in the form of rare moments of beauty and art, crafted from dreams' destruction.

The first story focuses on daydreams--the way that a kid can dream of places and times in his past with a kind of idealism. Next, we turn to a story about panning for gold in the gutter, which becomes a kind of metaphor for looking for the treasure in life in a lower-class neighborhood, where nights consist of the sounds of fighting and sex and where people come together only when a building goes up in flame--over jealous love--with an entire family inside (not the kids too! they say).

I'm not sure what to make of the title story. Broken into four pieces, each piece focuses on a loss of some sort. The first section is about a graffitti mural. In that mural, a girl's tears turn out to be, when closely examined, reflections of the entire city down to the minutest details. The second section deals with gang shootings of a sort; the third focuses on the loss of a friend to the "underground," as he decides to go visit and live in the old city subway tunnels (one get the feeling we're talking about the underground as a meaphor for death); and the final section focuses on a puppeteer who calls forth dead Ritchie Valens for a mostly nonexistent audience.

One of the more successful stories in the book is "Freedom." It's the tale of two kids who make a rooftop their home--even going so far as to build a house of sorts on the roof. From that perch, they launch rocks at passersby for fun, until one day the rock throwing results in tragedy and their time of freedom comes to an end.

"Childhood" is about kids peeping toms and what results when they are finally caught at it. The story is mixed in with Catholic superstition (the disappearance of the Virgin creates a community stir) and guilt.

Another story split into parts is "Snakes." The first part focuses on folks who climb the El or who slink around in the underground like cave explorers. The next focuses on walls, and the next on what it is like to live in an Arab city. The piece closes with a short piece about proper etiquette at a wedding dance. How these pieces fit together, I was never able to quite figure.

Maximilian focues on three memories about Max (the narrator's cousin), two of them revolving around his fist--that is, fights that Max got into. The last story holds the most power, involving a funeral procession that is interrupted by a driver unwilling to wait. Max takes off after the driver and beats him up once he catches him. Was it worth the trouble?

"God's Country" is one of the better stories in the collection. It revolves around a kid named Chuey, who, as it turns out, has the gift of resurrection: he can raise dead things to life. There is some question as to the reality of this early on, but at the story proceeds, you come to believe in his power. But like a story of fantastic realism, the power is treated almost banally. The kids who gather round him get rather bored of watching Chuey raise dead animals, and even Chuey himself gets tired of using the power. Even miracles, as it turns out, are just a way to kill time during long and boring days as a kid. And coloring the whole story is a tragic event that makes the whole thing seem rather banal--raise the dead, but the neighborhood will kill no matter.

"Sides Streets" is another short piece that doesn't seem to quite add up. It's about different reactions to the death of a gangbanger named Casper: kids reenact his death; his mother disappears; the story moves into myth with no clear single reality.

"Blood" is an advice column--an older man dispensing advice to another kid in the neighborhood about how to be a man. How to act at a bar, and so on. It's an intriguing piece probably most because the form is so rarely used.

"Blue Magic" is the third story split into seemingly unrelated parts. The opening piece is the most intriguing here, explaining how a kid walks along the "edge" of the earth--namely his neighborhood, an area that he never leaves. I remember reading about how some people who grow in the inner city never leave a fairly small radius; it's as if their whole world is the neighborhood, and this story fits in with that kind of world vision.

"Growing Pains" is a complete story that works well, and "Sacrifice" is another strong piece, in part because it is so harrowing. It involves a man and his wife and the man whom the husband killed, the wife's ex-boyfriend. Ironies are packed in this piece--and double identities. The husband is from one side of the neighborhood; the wife and her ex are from the other side of the neighborhood. The child they have is named after the ex-boyfriend; this child is in fact the ex's offspring. The ex stalks the family, gets help from the family. The husband threatens--repeatedly--to do something. He is just trying to protect his family; or was the ex just trying to protect his?

"Supernatural" makes of pollution in a neighborhood canal what most make of something like the appearance of the Virgin Mary. In these last stories, Galavis-Budziszewski moves into a kind of satire. This is the miracle that neighborhoods like this get--a green glow from waste that might just heal someone but that is certainly interesting to look at.

Just like looking at fires is the fun activity in "Ice Castles." Full of old buildings, each night features one of them going up in flames. Father and son head out to watch the firefighters, who are generally less than effective. What glory fills the night sky--and sometimes the morning's ground.

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