Daniel Olivas' Devil Talk: Stories
Go ahead, call it magical realism. Although only half of the twenty-six stories in Devil Talk: Stories contain magical realist elements, Daniel A. Olivas is happy to share the label with writers like Isabel Allende, Kathleen Alcalá and Gabriel García Márquez.
Olivas is also part of an interesting trend, cuentos de fantasmas, or ghost stories, which blend Mexican folklore with American pop culture. Sounds very "X-Files" to me. Inspired by legends of El Diablo, his series of La Diabla tales interspersed throughout this collection are skillfully told as folk tales without sounding artificially folksy. One of these, "Don de la Cruz and the Devil of Malibu," also appears in the Rob Johnson anthology, Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2001). The story happens to feature one of Olivas' characteristically brazen and compelling openings:
Don Jesús de la Cruz slept with the Devil. No, this is both too euphemistic and inaccurate. Don de la Cruz screwed the Devil, fucked the Devil, but never slept with the Devil, La Diabla. As most of us know, the Devil who lived in Southern California was a female, so she was La Diabla, not El Diablo. Because the Devil is legion, the Devil resides in most towns and cities and may be a man or a woman. It all depends on what is needed.
Olivas' book is a page-turner, the work of a master storyteller. Once I started the book, I couldn't keep myself from reading it, mostly during stoplights, as I drove through Hollywood traffic on La Brea.
Many endings feature a twist. I won't give anything away, but I should warn you that these tales are not often wrapped up tidily with a thorough explanation or resolution. You have to maintain a tolerance for ambiguity and an appreciation for the quality of a moment or an image, even if you never find out what happens next.
The collection entertains in its diversity like an anthology or magazine. Olivas writes from different points of view - first person narratives, third person, and even second person - and varies the tense depending on the needs of the story. Some stories are brief sketches, others elaborately plotted.
Like the magical realists, Olivas writes from an outsider's perspective, though in Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans are hardly a "minority." With at least one Chicano character in each story, the characters nevertheless portray a broad range of Mexican-American experience: from upwardly-mobile professionals to farmworkers, from a convert to Judaism to a drag queen. In "Willie," we get a glimpse of a young man at the margins of his community through the eyes of his open-hearted little sister:
Wilfredo likes to dress to get Papá all riled up. You know, Willie wears those short-shorts that you see on the ladies who walk up and down that bad street near the Shell Station that Mamá says no self-respecting good Catholic would wander by unless your car died and you needed to get some help from Manny who works there. Mamá says those putas have no right to mess up our nice neighborhood. But the neighborhood don't look so nice and I figure some pretty ladies walking up and down a street can only make things look nice, right?
In "Tabula Rasa" we meet a young couple dealing with male/female dynamics within a changing cultural context:
I wanted to grab her hands, stop them, squeeze them, and make her look at me while she told me what she did yesterday. But I didn't because she'd pull away, tell me not to be so macho, a typical male. A typical Mexican male. And then I'd say, no, I'm Chicano and almost done with college. I'm no Neanderthal. So instead of getting into a stupid fight, I stood silently and let her finish cleaning the desk.
Olivas obviously lives observantly and his seemingly effortless characterizations are realistically complex. Personalities, even in the folkloric or fantastical stories, are depicted in natural and even earthy ways. For example, many of his characters are sexual beings, yet Olivas' writing is free of gratuitous sex scenes. Also blissfully absent are annoyingly shallow or stereotypical descriptions of female characters such as I encounter in a lot of men's work.
Most of the stories are set in Los Angeles, though some take place in today's L.A. while others occur back in the days of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de los Ángeles de la Porciúncula. Regardless of the historical setting, the characters ring true to their context.
Often one character speaks in Spanish while the other replies in English. I would imagine this yields an enjoyable, culturally-reinforcing experience for the bilingual/bicultural reader. As a mostly monolingual reader, I found Olivas' handling of language added a layer of disorientation, though to differing effect depending on the story. In some cases it enhanced the mood of ambiguity and uncertainty. In other cases it reflected the disorientation that's part of my daily reality, living and working among Spanish speakers here in L.A.
These characters dwell in overlapping worlds, from the matter-of-fact existence of Aztec and Christian deities to the universal inanity of the corporate office. This moment in the story "Monk" could fit neatly into a "Dilbert" cartoon or one of my favorite movies, "Office Space":
He remembered how on his first day at Caltrans, his new supervisor, Roland, told him his memos could be really "perked up" with such simple markings--"bullets," Roland called them. Bullets. Ever since then, Antonio used bullets in his memos. In fact, he became addicted to bullets particularly because the more he used, the more compliments he received from Roland.
Later in the same story, Antonio experiences a family dynamic common to many cultures:
His mother tapped his arm and he turned to her. 'We only want the best for you,' she said. His father nodded. How can they know what's best for me if I don't know what's best for me?
Olivas has numerous gifts as a writer, yet he uses his tools sparingly, not imposing a technique onto a story just because he's good at it. "Muy Loca Girl" reveals his talent for concise yet layered description in a tale that is full of contemplation like its protagonist, Marta:
Isabel's flat nose hovered above thick lips and reminded Marta of the Aztec carvings she studied in her ancient cultures textbook last year but never saw in person.
Likewise, in "Bender," Olivas sets the tone for the story with poetic efficiency:
The Los Angeles summer sun shines hard and heartlessly through the large window and lights up the bed like a Broadway stage.
Olivas' outlook in this approachable and hard-to-put-down collection is compassionate and optimistic. Perhaps not too surprising for an author whose day job is environmental law. A book like this makes me wish I were skilled at generating extravagant praise. It certainly merits it. It's a collection to be proud of, and I can't wait for his next book to come out. I'll just have to try not to read that one while driving.
(Devil Talk: Stories by Daniel A. Olivas. Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, Tempe, Arizona. 2004. $13.00)