An Other American Life

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Breathing, In Dust
By Tim Z. Hernandez
Texas Tech University Press
178 pages
ISBN: 978-089672-742-7
E-book: 978-0-89672-6

Hernandez writes that it is the true things that happen along the nation’s southern border that are hard to believe. Readers who find that hard to believe need to listen to the testament played out in his novel, Breathing, In Dust. Many readers will find the coming-of-age story to be an eyeopener. The

frailties and fears of the human condition, are rampant in Catela, the fictional San Joaquin Valley farm town that is the backdrop for the adventure. Those qualities are mirrored in the angst of
Tlaloc, the novel’s main character, as he struggles to advance his humanity in an American locale where the legendary “dream” is abandoned.

The title itself, Breathing, In Dust, hints at the fraudulence of the American Dream as it forecasts the story in that most of the characters have breath, yet their lives never rise above the dust. Hernandez drags readers who are likely unfamiliar with the paradox of life in California’s San Joaquin Valley into places and introduces them to personalities as stark and startling as the scenes in Larry 1966, small town, North Texas novel, The Last Picture Show. The reward for readers who finish the book will be revelations about poverty, immigration and race in the early 21st Century that hit as hard as Michael Harrington’s nonfiction expose on Appalachian poverty The Other America struck readers in the early Sixties.

Tlaloc’s life unfolds in a 400mile stretch of hard times along the center of California, just below the capital, Sacramento. At the core, the story is a saga of troubled fathers that yield troubled sons. The people are hard, but the novel makes it clear that the problem at root is the demands of the land.

In reality, nearly 4 million people live in the largely agricultural region known as, “The Food Basket of the World.” Life is hard there for Mexican Americans, but no easier for the Black, Asian, and poor white inhabitants, who rank among the poorest people in the state and throughout the country. It is a place where people find existence, not hope. Interestingly , the Undocumented and immigration problems are a back beat in the story. The focus is on the in-country migrants who make an annual circuit to survive, yet both the plight of both groups are part of the truths and contradictions bred by capitalism.

The harvest demands of oranges, peaches, garlic, tangerines, tomatoes, kiwis, and some of the region’s other crops require hands to whom most employers extend more tasks than cash. Hernandez, who is also a poet, has a spare but colorful writing style that comes through clearly in the fictional town’s description:

To say Catela is to say Chihuahua and Ararat and Grecia and Madina all in a single breath. To live it is a whole other tangle of vines. Forged at the bottom of a once lake, ripe with tule foliage and cattails, no eagle perched atop nopal leaf, no shining constellations or symbols of destiny manifest, nothing but darkened flesh and muscle and spade and oxen black as pitch, and a few seeds spilled from the rucksack brimming with disease and curse and karma long past due.

The novel, divided into four parts, which as the awareness of the reader grows through the main character, removes most questions as to the effect of the environment on what chapter after chapter seems to become a comedy of errors. Tlaloc’s drama unfolds in what sometimes appears to be a series of twenty short stories, rather than a chronological narrative.

He is like a lot of young people throughout the nation. From child to teen, an observer in a life in which he should be a player. Readers learn about him in a variety of ways. One of the most artful is in the chapter, “Antifaz,” which means “mask.” The author skillfully reveals a number of things about characters in subtle touches such as punctuation. One of the most interesting passages is where the reader is shown a letter from Tlaloc’s absentee father who because of work and the stresses that their lifestyle places on the family lives in Brownsville, Texas. The author uses the chapter to show what happens when circumstances leave a man unable to find his footing in life. The reader sees words stricken from the text, as the putative writer fumbles to find the right expression to reach across the years to the son he left behind.

“Hijo mio (my son),” is scratched out. “I wish,” is dropped. “Dear Tlaloc,” does not make the cut, either. The reader can see the father’s struggle with his failure to master the right tone to make his case in either Spanish or English. “Many times I,” are the last set of striked-out words. The man finally choses to bluntly begin, “Tlaloc.”

It is clear that Tlaloc’s father gives up on the family because of the “antifaz,” the look on his wife and child’s faces the last time he saw them. He left when the boy was three, after an argument with Tlaloc’s mother. At the same time, the reader wonders whether he had a recourse.

Hernandez shows the reader a simplicity and sincerity in the unnamed letter writer that engenders sympathy for a man who does not know how to gain control over life. For example, in the letter the father describes a ride from Tijuana at break neck speed when Tlaloc was an infant. The passage reveals how the last ties with his wife unravel, which turns into his final moment with the family:

Your such an asshole, she called me. This was her favorite word for me back then. You’re in the back seat of course quiet like always. I look at you and you got this nasty antifaz pulled on your eyes. (He strikes out, “The car bangs over the potholes and”) I am cussing at the road and your mama yells at me something about the way I’m driving. It must be one hundred degrees and the air conditioner didn’t work. We were sweating like perros. Your damn tongue was hung out your head and I said something to her about this and she thinks I am calling you a dog and then she spits right at me. And then you complain that your stomach hurts and makes this horrible noise from your throat and then, you hold your stomach and do this silent crying thing you always did. No tears or nothing like that just a lot of shaking and then you shut your eyes. When your mama sees you she gets more pissed off and grabs my hat and throws it out the window. It hits the car behind us and now this asshole is flipping me off and trying to pull me over.

The tragic errors escalate until the mother climbs into the back seat with the child. The father continues the narrative about the long ride, but ironically never says that they reached home. What is clear is that he no longer has one.

The end comes without a word in the midst of a crazy dash back to Catela. The man sees the eyes of the mother in the rearview mirror. He writes,“the same loco antifaz you got except hers don’t go away.” A few sentences before the father sums, “she’s giving me this look like she wished I was (‘invisible’ strike out) dead.”

The letter offers Tlaloc an invitation to Brownsville, a photograph of Tlaloc in which he is a the three-year-old with his father and uncle on his grandmother’s porch and a $20 bill. The father writes, “Just so you can never say that I gave you nothing, even though I know that isn’t true.”

The letter writer’s fabled unsteadiness is what the reader sees in Tlaloc throughout the novel. His struggle against the Fates is understated, yet in nearly every chapter the circumstances of life swirl into chaos. Things happen to him more than he makes happen, and Tlaloc is suspended in chaotic state not much different that the one described by his father. In response, the character shows a great deal of covert emotion. For example, the teenager joins his uncle Alejandro, and Animal, the uncle’s buddy, in the slaughter of a pig. Throughout the episode, the boy does what he is told.

The scene opens in 1983, and Tlaloc’s age is not mentioned, yet the boy seems like a grade-schooler with a butterfly, as he pokes a finger through a wire mesh cage to touch the pig. Readers can see the child’s instinct to make a pet of what the uncle has made clear is about to be a victim. Animal,the uncle’s buddy, cautions the boy about the nature of the beast.

“That son of a bitch will eat anything put in front of him,” he tells the boy. “Even its own children.”

The statement becomes subtly prophetic. As the brief chapter unfolds, Tlaloc is swallowed by the mens’ bloodlust, and jumps into a swirl of violence when uncle cannot find his machete for the slaughter. He is forced to try to slay the pig with an ice pick. Chaos ensues. Most of the time, Tlaloc is knocked about or stands frozen in fear in the shadows of a darkened garage. In the end, he watches Animal smash the creature’s skull with an old tire rim.

The boy screams, “No!” After, his uncle hands him a mop and says, “Get cleaning.”

Tlaloc moves throughout the book in a similar fashion. Even in the final chapter, his character emits the sense of the outsider/observer to whom things happen. There is a sense in the novel that all human endeavors matter little in the end. Tlaloc returns to town for his friend, Jesus’s bachelor party, which revs into a carnal free-for-all in room nine at the Blossom Motel. He leaves in resignation.

“You expect someone, Jesus maybe, to open the door and call you back in, but it never happens,” he says. He describes the scene as “a zoo in full riot.” The young man elaborates, “A swell of sound and stench and thundering comes from behind the walls.”

The final lines draw memories of the descriptions of his father:

As you walk to your car you wonder if you’ll ever see Jesus again. You wonder why you could careless either way. You look back at the room and decide to leave all these questions there in the parking lot of the Blossom. And then you get in your car and drive away. Wondering how long before , or if, anyone will notice you’ve been missing.

Breathing, In Dust is a little gruesome. Even the passivity of the main character is a little like an assault on the senses. Readers might find themselves with impulse to scream at the boy, yet never able to disengage from as the story unfolds. The characters, language and scenes are like a bad traffic accident – one wants to turn away, but cannot help continue to peek at the damage. Those same things are almost too different for those who reside in “polite society” accept without feeling uneasy, but those features in their totality make book a beauty.

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