Literary Lion

The Water Museum

By Luis Alberto Urrea

(Little Brown, 2015)


There is a temptation to be wary of the talent of Luis Alberto Urrea, the Tijuana-born, Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet and novelist who, although publishing since the 90’s, really burst upon the literary scene in 2004 with The Devil’s Highway, nonfiction about a group of Mexican immigrants who are lost in the Arizona desert.

Voted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame after the publication of his book of poems Vatos, Urrea’s reputation as a consummate craftsman was solidified by the historical novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter, an epic tale about a half-Indian woman born in 1873 who performs miracles and upsets the status quo. With his 2009 novel Into the Beautiful North, the man who had jobs as a film extra and columnist-editor-cartoonist, became a bona fide Latino literary lion. A much sought after speaker with 13 books to his credit, Urrea is not only a publishing phenomenon but a writer’s writer, capable of producing heartfelt memoir as well as social satire.

One gets the feeling, while perusing passages of risk-taking comedy amid his nimble narratives, that Urrea can do it all. And nowhere is this American Book Award winner’s range more observable than in his latest collection of short stories, The Water Museum. In this tight gathering of new stories and older tales culled from his 2002 Cinco Puntos Press collection Six Kinds of Sky, readers are introduced to situations where a middle-aged woman who has settled into a role of diner proprietor seeks unification with her past through a disappearing act; and a guy that has been dumped by his wife steals a car and goes on a spirit quest fueled by booze, self-destructive intuition, and a lack of basic automotive maintenance skills.

All aspects of Latino awareness are represented in Urrea’s latest book.  We’ve got smart kids who keep getting seduced into scary, bad boy behavior like breaking into abandoned homes for flat screen TV and stealing canoes to explore the secret waters of a city, and we see morally invested graffiti artists getting soul-edifying messages to the youth before giving up the ghost. In the Edgar Award-winning story “Amapola,” Urrea, ever conscious of the dangers as well as the delights of the contemporary Latino world, offers a frightening Romeo and Juliet take on the current state of cartels against the wages of  love-struck commitment wherein a young man must embrace a murderous fate in order to survive and keep his sweetheart.

For a collection that traipses themes of doomed relationships, identity, religious awe, and social responsibility, the book is refreshingly bereft of a preachy tone, and recalls in scenes of pure descriptive joy a kind of fable-like power. Urrea, deft at alerting readers to social ills while entertaining, is best when he floods the scenes with throwaway details that ready the reader before being taken down dark channels. Here is how he humbly sets up a story that will end with deportation and a narrow escape: “So this was New Year’s Day. This was sunlight.  Seventy-eight degrees.  This was the sound of the barrio awakening from the party: doves mourning the passing of night, pigeons in the dead palm trees chuckling amid rattling fronds, the mockingbird doing car alarm and church bell iterations in Big Angel’s olive trees in front of the house. Junior pulled the pillow over his head -- it was those kids with their Big Wheels making all that noise.”

The Water Museum is an excellent introduction to this gifted writer. But with its stories of mid-life crusades cloaked as crises, and the empathy rich renderings of innocence to experience, it’s also a book that could be passed from teenager to older uncle with ease.

By Roberto Ontiveros