[9 October 2007]
Motorcycle collisons. Gas station hold-ups. Fork-lifting accidents. Manuel Muñoz puts the characters of The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue through the types of sigh-eliciting misfortunes that we see every day in the newspapers, plunging past the headlines and into their gritty details. But the accidents themselves are rarely the centers of his stories; they merely function as catalysts for Muñoz’s intensely emotional accounts of the intertwined lives of 10 California Valley residents.
Like his first short story collection, Zigzagger, Olive Avenue focuses on one location throughout the whole book, frequently tying characters’ lives together in unconventional ways. Names of places like Gold Street, Fresno, Avenal, and Visalia come up in every story, making the California Valley seem like an old, familiar neighborhood. Muñoz delves into details that make his communities come alive with what we all notice but never say about our own towns: the presence or absence of sidewalks, the man who never mows his lawn. We get to see the comings and goings of Muñoz’s characters from the standpoint of nosy neighbors, feeling somehow integrated into the tiny communities without ever realizing our limitations as readers.
Though each story takes place in a similar location, Muñoz gives the characters their own distinguishable quirks. In “Señor X”, old man Treviño has a beautiful Cadillac but a backyard full of junk; Guadalupe Rivera has men in and out of her house in “The Comeuppance of Lupe Rivera”; Sergio tries to keep his sister Cecilia out of his gang troubles in “The Heart Finds Its Own Conclusion”. They’re not the stories of fantasy or unrealistic fiction— they’re what happens to your crazy next door neighbor, or that loud family down the block; the real stuff.
In fact, Muñoz’s stories are often so frighteningly real that they lack the conclusive endings that we are so used to. We see them in movies, in books, even in our own lives as we try to create solutions to problems that have no solution. I won’t spoil the stories, but I’ll warn you that they are rarely satisfying. Muñoz never kills off his suffering widows, never solves the mysteries, never brings the old grandfathers peace—he lets them live and suffer and wonder, rejecting storybook endings in favor of upholding life’s inevitable complexities.
Each story runs a similar course, every character having to deal in some way with frustration or grief in an environment that is difficult to experience either. There are plots, of course, intricate family histories and past lives that resurface after years of hibernation—but the real stories are in the characters. Muñoz lets us in on their secrets little by little, nonchalantly wedging names and places into casual conversation. Identities are mysterious until the final pages of each story, when either tears or the lack thereof reveal what Muñoz has been getting at all along.
The characters rarely speak, and when they do, it’s their afterthoughts that do most of the talking. Muñoz’s strong point is silence, describing wordless emotion with an acuity that would put Charlie Chaplin to shame. In the title story, a wheelchaired young man named Emilio utters barely a sentence, instead spending most of his time contemplating:
“He looked past his father at the old lead pipe, dragged from the backyard, that his father had bolted into the tub’s sidewall to help Emilio gain leverage so he could bathe. He pictured his father trying to think of ways to help him when he had no real way of doing so … But here was his father now, tired, sitting on the edge of the tub in a bathroom that was ill-equipped for Emilio, the house itself too old and small for him to be comfortable, and his father looked like Emilio must have, all those months ago, sitting on the lip of the toilet and wondering how to ask for help.”
On top of all this, Muñoz manages to write about one of literature’s least discussed topics: homosexual Mexican-Americans. Although not as sexually explicit as Zigzagger, Olive Avenue gets into the nitty-gritty of both of these lifestyles, delivering their ups and downs with devastating honesty. Whether or not Muñoz has experienced that which he writes about, Olive Avenue certainly gives the impression that he has. His stories are written from the perspective of one who has thought long and hard, rather than in a rambling, streaming narrative. It perfectly conveys the amount of control Muñoz’s characters exert over their own and others’ emotions, as even the structure of the stories never loses its cool.
But losing cool is rarely the priority of the characters of Olive Avenue, whose problems range from dead-end jobs to broken families to living with the guilt of another’s death. Living from day to day is often their biggest concern, treating the burden of prejudice as merely another aspect of life in the California Valley. Often, the characters’ sexuality and personal problems are so well hidden from others in the stories that were it not for Muñoz’s thick, descriptive paragraphs, we would be oblivious to their dilemmas.
Although The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue begins and ends with strong stories—“Lindo Y Querido” and the title story—there is little in between that stands out. Muñoz’s stories somehow come off as unremarkable, and I mean that in the most literal sense. His writing is superb, and his characters are practically jumping off the page, but at each story’s conclusion, there are no revelations, no life-changing moments. There is a feeling of complete lack of forward movement, and intentional or not, the concept does get repetitive. Martín of “Bring Brang Brung” is stuck in partnerless fatherhood (the story’s final words: “All day it rained. Nothing changed. It rained all day.”), while the protagonist of “Senor X” finally accepts his inability to change his petty criminal ways.
It seems to be a recurring theme: the futility of change. Muñoz paints wonderful pictures of his characters’ lives, but only in some stories does he force them to make decisions and actually do something about their lives. As for the rest—he stubbornly refuses to make them alter their ways, creating a frustrating relationship between reality and human desire. The inflexibility of first-generation immigrants with tradition clearly runs through the entire novel, while long-suppressed emotions often come bubbling up, as if in rebellion.
It is refreshing to read a book that is struggling not only within itself, from story to story, but with itself. Though rebellion is more often than not smacked on the back of the head with an old, wizened hand, it is the effort, not the outcome, that is more interesting. Moreover, Muñoz shoves a sensitive topic (for some) in front of America’s nose with unabashed pride, confirming and contradicting stereotypes in a pattern so erratic that it is at times impossible to tell whether he is disapproving or supportive of his own people’s habits. But this insight is at times blurred by Muñoz’s perpetual tone of restrained sadness, a voice that both works well with the personality of his stories, and prevents these same stories from becoming something more.
Yet despite its slightly homogenous nature, The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue is a fine sophomore effort. It wasn’t exactly the most thrilling read, but whoever said a book needed to be? A little thoughtful reflection can work wonders in small doses.