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