William J. Cobb
(Unbridled Books)There's lovely Una --- Ramona Delgado-Vu --- mother Mexican, father Viet-Namese; he lost forever at sea. Falk, the seventeen-year-old drop-out, lanky, unsure. Gabriel Perez, twenty-something, a seducer, pissed-off. The cynic Smurof Gusef, "The Soviet," master of wisecrack, owner of the Black Tooth Cafe.They all live in Goodnight, Texas. Might be an update on Thorton Wilder's "Our Town," except there was hope in that one. Goodnight is wisely named: the trailer parks are ramshackled, the signs faded, the Texas gulf is depleted, the people retired or just plain tired --- even the young seem too old. Falk, when he is not cleaning the tables and mopping the floor at the Black Tooth is taking photographs of decay and decline.
His favorite photos were those of houses delapidated and collapsing, a scenery of decay and active ruin. What he envisioned was a photography that celebrated the beauty of decay, of things falling apart, of what happens to the world after the boom, after the gold rush, after the bubble burst, a vision of sublimity in rot.Una's sometimes honey is Perez, but he's a rotter. Early on, we see him inciting riot in the parking lot of the Canoe Club. He's pissed at Una --- he thought she was flirting --- so he demolishes the mirror of a car owned by a lanky young Texan. "The cowboy lifted his hat off his head, sighed, and put it back in place, his shadow in the bright light above the entrance going tall, then shrinking into the parking lot and casting a pool of darkness."
Beside the building stood a yellow plastic mop bucket full of dirty brown water, a mop sloshed in it, a wringer mechanism on the lip of the bucket. The cowboy picked up the mop, a huge dripping filthy thing like a Rastafarian hairdo, and walked back to his truck. As Gabriel got to his feet the cowboy swung the heavy wet threads of the huge mop across his face, slapping him broadside with it. People groaned. Someone laughed.
Then the cowboy kicks Gabriel several times. "He scrambled under the pickup like a spider." Una screams, "Leave him alone! ... He's drunk! Can't you see that!"
The cowboy backed off, looked around at everyone, lifted his hat off his head again and replaced it. He raised his eyebrows at Una. Well of course he's drunk, china doll. Hell. We all drunk. That's no excuse for anything.
"We all of us drunk, the cowboy shouted into the humid wind. He shook his head. Don't change a damn thing."
For those of us who have lived through Texas brawls, one is given us here on the page perfectly, whole, in balance. There is a leisure (some brawls seem to go on forever) and there is, too, a certain artistic elegance ... a drunken cowboy tipping his hat at a "china doll" after beating her boyfriend silly is not all that uncommon in these parts.
There is a waspish humor that floats through Goodnight, Texas so that the simple story of a Gulf coast fishing village takes on an elegance as well. It's washed-up people trying to make do. Una thinking she will grow old and die as a waitress at the Black Tooth cafe. Falk, never sure: he's seventeen, kicked out of high school for carrying a knife ... he was scared of the cowboy types. Gustav, cursing the god who never listens to him. Gabriel, driving his schoolbus, taking up with sixteen-year-old Leesha at the end of the line, a rare, restrained, lovely seduction scene, perfect cad + classic, romantic innocent: "In the tunnel of the empty school bus, he exposed her china-white skin. The blue veins in her breasts like rivers flowing beneath fields of snow."
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What the literary poltroons mostly forget, I suppose, is that a novel is built on language. There are those writers who knock out a plot, pull it in, wring it out ... expel it like a hot dry wind. Then there are the rare few who mold it and shape it like fine silver, turning here, polishing there: so that the story gets told as a song, an old song made new and fresh and lively. This is Una and Falk finally, in the midst of the hurricane, coming together in bed: "The light in the room was the deep blue of shadows in closets in which something important, perhaps life shattering, is hidden in a shoe-box." A simple turn of words to show something is shattering the drab lives of two young people.
Cobb is not only a jeweler of phrasing and plotting, he knows how to give life to our characters. We find ourselves deep in the lives of these people --- sweet Una, shy Falk, the crazy Russian, the sheriff, the old drunk Buzzy, pissy Gabriel, and even the one --- small, funny --- who plays Una's mother ... "The doctors tell me any day I might drop dead. Then you will be happy."
Then you can leave this godforsaken town and never come to visit my grave. Weeds will cover it and no one will every know I existed. Then you will be happy.
There are storms aplenty in Goodnight, Texas,, and when Hurricane Tanya comes to town, all gets blown away. Una loses the cash, the tips she's been hiding under her trailer, Gusef loses his cafe and motel, Gabriel loses his willingness to stay (Leesha is with child). Two snowbirds die in their RV, Buzzy the one-legged drunk comes down with Nile Fever --- the mosquitoes are everywhere --- and the fishing boats and signs and trailers, all are blown over, end up covered with "croaking frogs." Sometimes the images remind us of The Tempest. This is one of our last shots of Una, getting ready to go over to the FEMA tent by the harbor, where she will find her mother's body:
Una was thin and haggard. She looked smaller than ever, as if she could fit into the cup of a seashell. An Asian sea sprite who steals the hearts of befuddled sailors and hides them in a coral box. The room smelled of spice and mildew. She had called the hospitals and the sheriff and had been told to check the FEMA tent by the harbor, where the bodies of the drowned lay sleeping forever now in rows. Like children just born in a hospital room, come full circle now, waiting to be named.
Since we can find nothing to fault the author for Goodnight, Texas, let us berate the producer. It has to do with a strange phenomena in America. Let's call it by its real name: linguistic snobbery.
Publishers are careful --- very careful --- when they are inserting German, Italian, French characters in their fiction and non-fiction, n'est-çe pas? But with Spanish, they seem to think that since it is associated with all those people cleaning up the kitchens, mopping the floors, picking up the garbage, minding the aged --- we can forget the rules of good grammar. I've noticed this carelessness even in the pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker, both thought to be so careful in their proofreading.
In Cobb's novel, loaded as it is with Tex-Mex, you'd think that someone with a background in language would check over the Spanish sentences, ¿no? Well, in a word, no.
Malrincon, the universal word for "queer" or "faggot" which appears at least three times in this book, is spelled "malrincón." That's an accent over the "o." "Dígame" is not "Diga me." "¿Porqué no?" is not "Por qué no?" (Wisely, in Spanish, they let you know you are getting a question before the question is asked. Thus the "¿").
A guy is a "vato," not a "bato." The name Maria is spelled "María." You (the familiar you) always has an accent: "Tú." If you scream it, it comes out as "¡TÚ!" (Wisely, in Spanish, they let you know you are getting yelled at before the yelling actually begins. Thus the "¡"). Und so weiter...--- Carlos Amantea