War by Candlelight by Daniel Alarcón

Anne K. Yoder

The revolutionary heart, truly the essence of the Lima depicted within these pages, never grows old.

War By Candlelight

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 208
Display Artist: Daniel Alarcón
Price: $23.95
Author: #243;n
US publication date: 2005-04
Amazon affiliate

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.





'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.