There are five basic senses, and the difference between good writing and writing that fades — especially writing about a place like California, so thrilling in its elements — is how those senses are evoked. What is life, after all, other than what we feel and do with those senses in the place we might call home? Is the outside air dry or humid? Does the light fall gently or suddenly? Does the acoustics make you wary or feel safe? What do people look like? Does the sky turn copper at sunset or purplish, or does the sun sink like a stone? Is the stench of cattle ranches bubbling? Is it cold at night? Can you smell what’s cooking as you walk down the street?
Jaime Cortez has found a way to bring his fiction to life more than any writer at work today because he asks such questions about the world he creates. And the answers are fabulous, hilarious, shocking. Developer. Watch his first collection of short stories. Set in a migrant worker camp in Watsonville in the 1970s, Gorde draws from all these tactile and tangible details and triumphantly brings his fictional universe to life. To say that this book updates Steinbeck Country for the 21st century underestimates the life force that surges here in 11 deceptively simple stories. It’s a book full of laughs and songs, full of meals and funerals, corny jokes and nicknames ingenious. It’s also a book of primordial stories about love and belonging, sex and death, the embrace of family and when it doesn’t let go.
Fittingly, the sense the book evokes most vividly is touch, much neglected, but not in the pages of Gorde. People are hugged and kicked, tackled, shoved, licked, pressed and tenderly held throughout these tales in the same way that children, siblings, parents, elders and lovers are in life but, strangely, are not often in fiction. How many people learned who not to hit growing up and who could be hit and reconciled? The cast of Gorde knows this, and they also know how to recognize when someone needs an easy touch. One of the greatest stories takes place in a hair salon, where a young hairstylist tends to make people feel better about themselves in small, tangible ways. One shot at a time.
Perhaps because they’re embodied, because Cortez’s tales deal with such small acts of decency, they sparkle immediately, like a stone hitting flint. They burn hot and fast in some, cold and spooky in others, with the atmosphere of moonlit fables. Their soundscapes linger like harmonies because Cortez knows how to put in just enough detail. There are noises of bottles crashing together, children kicking the ground, dogs barking. The strobe of voices from a distance, the way adults sound when kids are playing somewhere in the summer and know there are things they can get away with if they keep it up – until they cannot.
To read this book is to feel like you belong in a neighborhood, a place, a Cortez invites you in and lets you watch it as it asserts its boundaries through the eyes of a young, probably queer, somewhat burly named Gordon. Using Gordo’s nimble sense of humor as a barometer, Cortez pulls together all of the camp’s weather systems into a series of quick, comedic stories about Gordo’s weather there, advancing chronologically. In the final part of the book, we leave Gordo somewhat behind and meet some of the people who grew up around him.
We never see the camp from the outside. In fact, people often come to camp and leave quickly: a man selling donuts; the migration, who occasionally hunt down undocumented people. Midway through the book, in one of the best stories published in the last decade, Cortez describes a young visiting farmhand who comes to camp and hides out with Gordo’s family, forcing people to side with an outsider. who becomes one of them. .
Every tale has some sort of moral dilemma. Virtually all of the stories tackle this complex territory through humor. In “El Gordo,” Cortez reflects on the irony of learning to be masculine; Gordo’s dad gives him some frankly fabulous wrestling gear for Castro and tells him a story about his boxing hero, while asking him to be macho; in “The Jesus Donut,” we meet the children of the camp before discovering a slapstick tableau of them turning buying a donut into a fake Catholic mass; In “The Nasty Book Wars,” an explosive coming-of-age satire kicks off when kids go to war against nudity magazines, the acts depicted in which they have yet to guess.
Humor is Cortez’s sixth sense; this is how he bends and weaves a world within a world so that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. In “The Nasty Book Wars,” for example, the coming-of-age children are juxtaposed with the adults of the camp, who live in states of precariousness that the children can only vaguely sense. Primi, one of the adults, gets rid of these shadows with the excesses of his personality and his style. Cortez’s description of him is full of warmth and humor, pathos and a hint of shame.
Primi loved to party. He splurged and rented brown Boston lace-ups and a matching tuxedo with ruffles that cascaded down the equator of his beer belly, making him look like a billowing downward-moving rainforest rooster her feathers for one last nuptial dance. When he walked into the San Juan Bautista VFW room with a lively, breathing, lively, unknown female escort, everyone hissed and called. He got it all like the pope, bowing slightly left, right, and center of the room.
Anyone who said style is a struggle was borrowing something from the show of a man like Primi. Or an artist like Cookie, one of Gordo’s classmates, who in a story about her must decide whether to deface the public buildings where she lives or draw on paper like a fantasy artist. A profound question about how to make art about where you come from lurks in parable form in this tale. In the world of his world, Cortez’s tales never ask their characters to perform or dance for their dignity. They receive it as a right, and so we sense when that dignity is threatened, but we can also sense why certain habits and rituals and even silences create meaning. In the second half of the book, in a story about a gay barber, Cortez shows us a version of the man Gordo could become – a man who never has to leave where he comes from to practice his craft.
It’s a hugely important book, a unique book about how a house is made and how tenderness can emerge in a neighborhood in the form of jokes, punches, simple meals. The rough bite of a dog. That the sweat and toil of the job takes place off-screen, so to speak, speaks volumes: what else are we working for? To make a home, to support, to have money to eat and drink, and so we can pass the hours lightly. For years, the Midwest has had its House on Mango Street. It wouldn’t surprise me if years from now, Gorde reached millions of readers with his artistry and beautiful appeal to Cortez’s Watsonville, a place, thanks to these pages, that will forever remain on America’s literary map.•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, December 15 at 5 p.m. PT when Cortez joins CBC host John Freeman to chat. Gorde. Please go through the High clubhouse to let us and other book club members know your thoughts on the book. Register here for the event.