In the midst of the tumultuous news streams of our time, genuine innocence seems rare. So much seems unsurprising, and can even one day go by when you don’t hear about, well, any sort of vicious inequality? It can feel as if we’re living through the dawn of a second Gilded Age, with all the Manichaean starkness that would entail. Read children’s literature from the earlier Gilded Age and you’ll often find a certain kind of moralizing, the only-the-good-die-young trajectory Billy Joel sings about.
Jaime Cortez’s debut short story collection, Gordo, our December California Book Club selection, is charming, in part, because it deeply and uncynically engages with innocence, but that doesn’t mean it moralizes. Instead, it complicates the persistence and indomitable spirit of kids who have the deck stacked against them. They live and work in the garlic fields outside Watsonville, but rather than seek to induce our pity or generate a black-and-white moral universe, the way so much Gilded Age fiction did, Cortez lavishes us with heartfelt scenes in which innocence encounters harshness—and these polarities exist not only between characters in conflict but even within a single child. The author plays these encounters not in service of the straitlaced moral judgment of a trauma plot but for comedy and empathy and sheer delight among queer kids.
Gordo, along with several of his friends, reappears across the exuberant collection. He’s chubby, a reader, not particularly quick-witted, but notably observant about his peers. These child characters, especially the girls, flout society’s opinions. They weather jeering by crowds of children. Cortez’s characters may be immersed in a hardscrabble environment, but they have a confidence many adult readers can only envy. And even when they’re mean-mouthed, which some of these kids are, they are irresistible.
Take Fat Cookie, for instance, whom we meet in a story that bears her name. She’s a talented, if slightly cruel, artist, a kid whose relationship with her mom is volatile and occasionally violent. Lacking other materials and possessed of an outsize imagination, she draws on the walls. She has a careless braggadocio—the same nonchalance and self-esteem that made Muhammad Ali so fun to watch.
At one point, Cookie engineers a “Mexican American Bandstand,” a dance contest that uses her mother’s boom box. She promises the winner 50 cents. But instead of awarding one of the other kids, she awards the 50 cents to herself, announcing, “I danced better than anybody. I’ll see you kids later. I gotta go, I’ve got a big life to live.” She’s still swinging her hips as the other kids flip her off—whether because she’s innocently oblivious or because she decides they’re idiots, it’s not clear, but the insouciance is hilarious. The other children are nonplussed. One girl calls Cookie a big cheater, and a boy says, “All she is is fat and dark and mean and kind of ugly. But she did dance good.”
Later, Cookie pins a boy, coming away with a bloody nose, to steal his porn stash for herself and the girls. Unbeknownst to the boys, including Gordo, she hides them in a smelly, abandoned refrigerator. Instead of resenting Cookie for the theft, as a less charming character might, Gordo walks home as it gets dark, “marveling at the totality of our defeat.”
In a later story, we get another glimpse of Cookie, as a grown woman who scoops ice cream at Thrifty for work. She receives a great hairstyle from that story’s central character, Raymundo—he’s another intriguing and complex figure, a queer man who defies what could have been limitations and persists with love for his home, even with its hardships.
In a less interesting writer’s hands, the impoverished conditions of the work camp—the broken and scalped dolls and the beer bottles—would be purely the source of trauma. Instead, these kids, who have neither the money nor the privilege to give up, play by a different philosophy. Failing the self is not an option.
While the environment Cortez sketches in Gordo might seem to slam the door on his child characters, they are often spirited and resolute. To give their kids a fighting chance against inequitable systems, sharp-eyed, impoverished parents often have to teach their kids that if the world is going to tell you no, fine, but don’t tell yourself no. Life may have come for the kids of Gordo already, and far too early—still, they persist.•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, December 15, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Cortez will join CBC host John Freeman and special guest Sandra Cisneros to discuss Gordo. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.
Ursula Villarreal-Moura (Math for the Self-Crippling) writes about the import of nicknames in Gordo. —Alta
WHY I WRITE
Cortez writes a lively and entertaining essay on his reasons for writing. One motivation: “I write because every Quixote needs to pick a damn windmill and charge.” —Alta
10 NEW RELEASES
Here are new books by authors of the West we’re excited about—including Jane Smiley’s A Dangerous Business, Sabrina Imbler’s How Far the Light Reaches, and prior CBC author Robin Coste Lewis’s To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness. —Alta
14 STORIES OF SOUTH CENTRAL L.A.
Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin reviews South Central Noir, edited by Gary Phillips. He writes that the book features “work that enlarges our sense of what noir is and what it does.” —Alta
Read a thoughtful essay about the implications of giving books as gifts. San Diego author and professor Jessica Pressman (Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age) comments that the book has always been a tool of community. —New York Times
THE WORLD OF VICTORIAN LONDON
After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the beloved Bay Area Dickens Fair returns to the Cow Palace to immerse visitors in the world of Victorian London. —Hoodline
Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.