Manuel Muñoz’s third collection of stories, The Consequences, highlights the lives of workers and families in California’s Central Valley. Muñoz was born in Dinuba, and in these 10 short stories, which take place mostly in the 1980s, Mexicans and Mexican Americans work and love and question just how much of themselves to reveal. What do we say when people ask who we are? The reluctance to divulge too much highlights the ways these characters walk a dangerous line between being needed and being rejected.
Muñoz’s stories are replete with small-town conventions: people defining themselves by when they went to high school, or gossiping about pregnant teenagers, or sharing legends about unusual deaths in the community. Casual conversations are marked by risk, and the characters here must protect themselves. Many of Muñoz’s narratives are built around an underlying sense of doom. A slip of the tongue around the wrong person means the loss of position or a safety net. This is especially clear in “That Pink House at the End of the Street on the Other Side of Town,” where a man gets too close to another’s wife, or in the several stories about gay relationships.
Take, for example, “Presumido,” in which Juan and Daryl prepare for a housewarming party. Life partners, they’ve built their life in Fresno, “a long way from the poverty of scalped yellow grass and dirt driveways, the houses that both he and Daryl had grown up in.” But after the couple hires a woman, Severina, to help with the party, she witnesses an intimate exchange between them, and Juan fixates on what she must think, ashamed. Muñoz explores the intricacies of pride in this story, as well as in others; Juan walks a tightrope as he tries to imagine his life and the strength of his relationship from an outside perspective. Something similar happens in “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” in which a woman reflects on the brother who left to express his identity. Each story in Muñoz’s collection represents a stillness on the surface with currents of doubt and fear running below.
Sometimes, characters are unwilling or unable to tell the truth. In “Fieldwork,” a son describes sitting with his aging father as he recovers from a stroke in a state-sponsored rehab facility. The older man has long kept information about his work life guarded, yet it flows out when he converses with a nurse:
When he heard the Spanish, he nodded and continued recalling in his own language. Cotton and tomatoes, too. And almonds, my father added, and figs and nectarines, there was so much work. Apricots, plums, corn, pistachios, the lemon groves over the eastern slope of the Valley into the Sierras. Walnuts and cauliflower. Cherries and pears. He kept remembering things. Strawberries hiding in the dirt. Pecans. Persimmons. Avocado trees in the prettiest green rows you’ve ever seen. Olives and wheat. Hay bundled up for the horses and the cows. Apples, because Americans liked their pies.
Muñoz captures the agricultural richness of the Central Valley with poetic prose while also illuminating the narrator’s discovery of the cause for his father’s lifelong taciturnity—it meant survival. His father, he comes to accept, endured by choosing which information he would withhold.
Work shapes so many of these stories. It is often a catalyst, a reason for a character to move, or for a character to feel emotional dislocation. The lives here are close to both land and employment. At the same time, as Muñoz writes in “Fieldwork,” “maybe work wasn’t exactly what we had been talking about.”
For Muñoz, too, work isn’t exactly what he is talking about. And yet it is: all the demands work imposes on a life. So many of these characters stay tight-lipped in order to get by—hiding their feelings for one another, keeping their true nature from their families, or concealing their fears.
The women in The Consequences create their own safety nets and escape paths. In “Anyone Can Do It,” Muñoz lays out the terms of working in the orchards: “Anyone can do it. It’s just that no one really wants to.” The men have been rounded up, and the women have to pick fruit. Delfina takes care of herself first and foremost, as many of the women in these stories do, even at the expense of other women. The protagonist of “The Reason Is Because,” on the other hand, is a teenage mother who claims agency by ignoring the town’s talk and sneaking out to attend a carnival with her friend. These are women driven by necessity. They have to keep things going, in part by stealing little moments for themselves.
As Griselda tells us in “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA”: “I proved that I could support myself in a hard world.” For her, this means taking a charter bus to Pershing Square, Los Angeles, in the hope of meeting her partner, just back from the border; along the way, she takes Natalia—naïve and new to this journey—under her wing. Griselda is an unrelenting mentor because she knows she won’t do Natalia any favors by deceiving her. Throughout their odyssey, Muñoz continually introduces doubt. The voyage they are on is driven by the power of corrupt political, agricultural, and economic systems; the cycle is repetitive and cursed. Farm owners call the authorities as soon as the harvest is done. Working men are sent to the border. Women travel to get them back. Griselda hardens herself to all of it.
How much should we say when people ask us who we are? Each of Muñoz’s characters struggles with this question. Their most personal vulnerabilities are often not lived out loud because too much is at stake. Muñoz, meanwhile, is a master of balancing interiority with outward toughness. By focusing on a series of individual lives, he reveals how each acts within a system that is entirely created to wear them out and use them up.•