It’s difficult navigating the media blitz announcing first books by young writers. The arrival of fresh blood coupled with the ability to string words seems the ideal formula for the new post-MFA literary darling. Still, despite the hype, Daniel Alarcón is a talented writer. By the ripe age of 28, he’s already earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had his fiction showcased in The New Yorker, and received the Whiting Award for dazzling potential. His credentials and achievements are enviable, his writing ambitious and, at times, luminous. And while War by Candlelight deserves commendation—the writing is fluid, the vision unwavering—it perhaps doesn’t deserve the mountains of unmitigated praise that have heralded its arrival.
Even with its faults, the book offers some finely crafted stories. “Flood” for one, as well as “City of Clowns,” a sprawling piece that follows Chino, a journalist, as he wanders the feral streets of Lima after his father’s death. Details of the absurd and the surreal form a smokescreen through which a cityscape emerges: 15 shoeshine boys march down the boulevard led by a clown on stilts; a protest wends its way through the city, snarling traffic in “beautiful, disgraced Lima, unhappy and impervious to change.” By the end, Chino, himself dressed as a clown, runs into his mother on the street, unintentionally scaring her. It’s a fitting end to a story where he’s forever attempting to hide in his own skin.
Alarcón’s strength lies in his ability to illustrate on the grand scale, to fill a landscape with striking details and depict extensive social networks without faltering under the weight of believability. He soars easily from the slightest detail to an abstract notion and just as smoothly back into the heart of the scene, as he does so seamlessly in the following passage:
Don José, watching his son toast the houses he would build for Peru’s homeless; watching his son tremble with emotion at the warmth of the family surrounding him, recognized that Fernando’s heart was like his own: nostalgic but combative, caring but suspicious, able to bundle great ideas into intractable knots of personal anxiety. It is the way men begin to carry the world with them, the way they become responsible for it, the way the become responsible for it, not through their minds, but through their hearts.
Yet at times Alarcón’s writing would benefit from more control and restraint, reigned in the stories would be ever more forceful. The same images reemerge throughout the book: the killing of dogs, death by landslide, and the prominence of clowns. Such singular images, when used repeatedly raise the question of the author’s creative haste. While each story is a distinct entity, the lines become blurred when distinguishing moments run together, such as with the thrice-mentioned death by landslide (by way of three different stories). The absurdity of a clown on stilts leading a pack of shoeshine boys loses its novelty when clowns reappear in another story at a funeral—for parents who were killed by a landslide. The practice stales quickly, but fortunately the most irritating repetitions are limited.
The revolutionary heart, truly the essence of the Lima depicted within these pages, never grows old. The combatively minded “War by Candlelight” spawns two decades, jumping erratically in time between portraits of Fernando, a man torn from his family by his allegiance to an unnamed communist guerilla movement that one assumes is the Sendero Luminoso. The flashes of Fernando’s life are bold: fighting in the forest in the midst of warfare, studying at the university where he first encounters communist ideology, making promises he knows he’ll never keep to his girlfriend, Maruja. Together, the fragmented scenes register the toll of sacrifice demanded by his rabid politics. Illuminated moments speak from the darkness of 20 years, answering how a sensitive boy grows into a warrior, how a man who has a heart for his people abandons his family.
Other stories fall flat. “Third Avenue Suicide,” one of the few set in New York City, depicts the dissolution of the relationship between David and Reena, two young lovers who recently moved in together. Reena’s parents are conservative Indians who wouldn’t approve if they knew she was dating David. This is a non-issue, though, until Reena falls ill. Slowly but surely David’s forced out of his living space while Reena’s mother comes more frequently to care for her daughter. At odd moments the dialogue fumbles and at others the story drowns in stasis. From the beginning we know that David will be dumped. His leaving is a cadence that leads to the realization of the futility of returning home. In its inwardness, the story implodes upon itself.
The shortcomings that temper Alarcón’s excellence are forgivable, especially when considering that this is his first book. The breadth of his stories, his incisive writing, his ability to capture the chaotic energy of a city on the page merit his rise into the media-anointed realm of the young and the talented. And here Alarcón emerges with his feet firmly planted. Most inspiring is the promise that he has yet to hit his stride, that he will continue to shower us with frenzied, wonderful stories in the years to come.
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