Fernando A. Flores’s new collection, Valleyesque, begins with a story titled “Queso.” At three pages, it’s the shortest piece in the book. In it, a man named Marcos interviews for a job at a Tex-Mex restaurant. But first, as he is “watching the news on television, Marcos yelled, ‘That anchor’s face ain’t real,’ and hurled an empty glass. The glass bounced off the TV screen and, curiously, neither shattered.”
Welcome to the world of Valleyesque, where things are both real and illusory. In other words: ceci n’est pas un shattered television set.
Flores’s idiosyncratic brand of surreal lyricism makes this book seem like a lost record from a venerated cult musician. “Queso” is a case in point, a fever dream of a story that interrogates the nature of reality and questions the meaning of authenticity. Marcos’s job interview is poetic and Dadaesque. As for the queso of the title, we already know that it too is no longer entirely real, having long ago been separated from its gustatorial origins. Yum.
This is just one of Flores’s many gifts as a storyteller. He applies hallucinatory imagery to the experience of life along the border, employing a thrilling style entirely his own. His prose offers a languid tumbling of images, one into the next, a spin cycle of poetics, dream imagery, and ideas not unlike what one might encounter in the stories of Jorge Luis Borges and Leonora Carrington.
His is a cosmic wizardry; his stories, an airbrushed tableau.
Flores’s debut collection, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, is ambitious, frenetic, and mystical while at the same time world-weary: a polyphonic collection pointing the way forward for literary fabulists. His novel Tears of the Trufflepig, published in 2019, is a borderland science fiction noir in which fantastic flourishes underpin real social, political, and ecological concerns. The narrative refracts back to us a world both psychotic and absurd, a madcap vision of our own.
Similarly, in Valleyesque, the real, unreal, and hyperreal all blend together in a hypnotic cocktail. Things do get weird—a used-clothing depot expands to the size of a fantastic city, a gang of possums makes its way into power by writing tell-all memoirs, a half-dead Chopin wanders the streets of Juárez looking for his lost Pleyel piano. But for all the transcendental razzle-dazzle, what sets this collection apart is Flores’s willingness to plumb more deeply the heartache of being human. In these stories, Flores is operating in a newfound register, rendering grief and loss as well as a dumpster-diving angel and a mural that doubles as a portal into another dimension with a deftness and sophistication not entirely realized in his earlier work.
In “A Portrait of Simón Bolívar Buckner,” Gabriel discovers the transformative power of honey in the wake of his mother’s death. Here, sorrow is everywhere, an ever-present, odorless gas. In one of the story’s smaller moments, Gabriel spots a dog stranded atop a car during a torrential downpour. The image is reminiscent of Goya’s The Dog, with all the existential oppressiveness implied.
Raf, who centers “You Got It, Take It Away,” manages (using the term loosely here) to connect with his neighbor, an incorrigible racist, while fearing that his aunt and uncle, who live in a trailer with his father, will soon be deported. During a conversation, Raf’s father ascribes Bogart’s final line in Casablanca to Johnny Canales, a Tejano singer turned late-night host who wore signature sunglasses and shimmery suits. In his imagination, Raf replaces Bogart with Canales and is moved to tears by the impossibility of the switch. “With all the lights in my apartment off,” he reflects, “I had one of those good, heaving cries, where your insides tumble out and you don’t know who you are anymore.”
Then there’s “The 29th of April,” perhaps the most striking piece in the collection, an account of the disintegration of a small border town through violence and corruption, framed by the life and death of a local matriarch. It’s a story of rage and grief and grace, told with deep familiarity, with hardly a hyperimagistic riff in sight. Years roll by in the span of sentences, the entire history of the town unfolding, brutality and melancholia hand in hand. The narrative recalls those of Juan Rulfo or Yuri Herrera, or the stories immigrant families tell to explain why they can never go home again.
Flores’s ability to slip in and out of his signature stylistic moves and create genuine moments of vulnerability gives the stories in Valleyesque a much-needed counterweight. His wild feats of imagination are not simply expressions of virtuosity. They are sleights of hand, a kind of close-up magic. The trick here—or the secret—is the way these stories make us feel.•