The Wa­ter Mu­seum by Luis Al­berto Ur­rea, Lit­tle, Brown and Com­pany,

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Loren Bien­venu

272 pages

Luis Al­berto Ur­rea’s lat­est col­lec­tion of short sto­ries is largely culled from his past work, though a cou­ple of the 13 pieces ap­pear here in print for the first time. They pro­vide a good over­view of his range, par­tic­u­larly the tone changes he em­ploys when slip­ping amongst var­i­ous cul­tural iden­ti­ties. Ur­rea was born in Tijuana to an Amer­i­can mother and a Mex­i­can fa­ther, and the con­cept of bor­ders in­forms much of his work. Of his dozen-plus pub­lished works in many gen­res, he may be best known for The Devil’s High­way ,a non­fic­tion ac­count of the har­row­ing set­backs a group of il­le­gal im­mi­grants en­dured af­ter be­com­ing lost in the un­for­giv­ing deserts of Ari­zona. The book was a fi­nal­ist for the Pulitzer and won the 2004 Lan­nan Lit­er­ary Award.

The Wa­ter Mu­seum opens with “Moun­tains With­out Num­ber,” a nos­tal­gic tale about a fic­tional min­ing town in Idaho on the verge of ex­tinc­tion. But th­ese are not fron­tier times: It’s to­day. Ur­rea gives voice to the el­derly in­hab­i­tants of New Junc­tion, which could be any of the dusty, one-diner towns found dwin­dling away off small high­ways across the coun­try. “Is a town dead when the old men die, or when the chil­dren leave?” won­ders the pro­tag­o­nist, an aged woman who is still haunted by the tragedies that un­folded the year she grad­u­ated from high school. Though the story is suf­fi­ciently charged with feel­ings of hu­man loss, Ur­rea takes things a step fur­ther by con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing th­ese emo­tions against the back­drop of the land­scape: “Moun­tains, too, are doomed to die. But it is their curse to die more slowly than any­thing else on earth. To weaken and fall, mile by mile, car­ry­ing their ar­row­heads into the gul­lies, and with them the gem­stone skele­tons of the old ones.”

Ur­rea’s po­etic in­stincts of­ten lead to his most mov­ing asides. He also puts his lyri­cism to use in sev­eral col­lo­quial sto­ries, in which the dis­af­fected man­ner and slang of his young and of­ten poor pro­tag­o­nists carry over from their dia­logue to the au­thor’s own prose. This is a tricky un­der­tak­ing. Some of th­ese pieces suc­ceed bet­ter than oth­ers. “Amap­ola,” which cen­ters around a glam-rock-lov­ing high schooler in Ari­zona who falls for the daugh­ter of a Mex­i­can car­tel leader, goes out pretty far on an in­creas­ingly thin limb — end­ing most im­prob­a­bly with the nar­ra­tor be­ing forced into a he­li­copter, where he must prove his love for the boss’s daugh­ter by shoot­ing down a bunch of Mex­i­can poppy farm­ers with a huge .60-cal­iber gun. He re­flects as it hap­pens: “You know how it goes in the movies. How the hero kicks the bad guy out the door and sprays the Mex­i­can crew with the .60 and sur­vives a crash land­ing. But that’s not real life.” (The story won an Edgar Al­lan Poe Award in 2010, which seems odd since it isn’t a mys­tery.)

The col­lec­tion closes with one of Ur­rea’s most an­thol­o­gized pieces, “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses.” An ap­pro­pri­ate book­end to some of the themes raised in the first piece, this story is also about loss, in the form of a doomed mar­riage be­tween a Sioux girl and a white South Dakotan. In this case, the grief leads to some­thing rare in Ur­rea’s sto­ries — a mea­sure of un­der­stand­ing be­tween cul­tures that usu­ally clash.

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