- Life of a Salesman
Texas Review Press
www.tamupress.com/product/Parts,8997.aspx300 Pages; Print, $20.95
One of the great sadnesses of working as a bookseller is seeing the ceaseless drivel that pours forth from the publishers’ catalogs. Even though, as a staff, we take great pride in cultivating our stock, we still need to stock the books that people are going to ask about, or the ones that get the press. After all, we have bills to pay. Because of this I am forced into contact with the Karen Russells, Chad Harbachs, and David Foster Wallaces of our world. This is to say that despite my best efforts I am surrounded by writers whom have written many words but said nothing. They are writers without depth or sentiment, writers who confuse maudlin tear-jerkers with tragedy, who think debasing “magical realism” by writing about vampires is a substitute for vision. What’s worse is the cut rate spawn they breed in imitators. There, the City on Fire (2015) of the book world, a lack of vision is simply blindness. Reading their work one is left with the impression that they are entirely without clue as to how the bulk of America suffers and dies.
It was a relief then, to discover Shoney Flores’s Parts this year. Released on the small but mighty Texas Review Press, Parts is a novel that gets within the lives of retail auto parts salesmen trapped in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. That they are trapped is the heart of the novel and it is here, in the exploration as to why they are trapped and how they try to get out, that Flores lifts himself above many of the debut novelists today.
The Rio Grande Valley is at the ass end of America, a 120 mile stretch of flatland heat falsely marketed as a valley to lure white settlers to an area Mexicans have lived in for nearly 400 years. Hundreds of miles from the nearest cities, this stretch of America is not a place people leave easily, if they can leave at all. Imagine then waking up in the morning, having coffee, getting in your car and driving to a retail auto parts warehouse to sell and market things you do not make for the people you are in debt to. Unless you are an owner you are in debt to the owners. This is servitude.
The warehouse that frames the novel’s heart is a massive complex, different parts everywhere, highly organized, all of it brutal. Grease and plastic bits. Arcane geometrics, serial numbers. Forklifts, pallets, pallet jacks and lift assists. Boxes upon boxes. Taped. Tracked. Lost.
Had Flores just left the characters wandering this wasteland alienated and lost he would have done nothing that Kafka and Beckett and Sam Shepard hadn’t already done. It was a fine surprise, a wise move on Flores’s part, to explore the nature of hope and the attempts at hope in how his characters try to claw out of the dead end meaninglessness of this work. For the narrator and a few others the hope of release comes in the form of writing, and the self-discovery that comes through the confrontations necessary to write and write well. That is, the confrontations the self faces against the blank page bring an awareness to the narrator and others. It is an awareness for some that becomes hope, for others tragedy. The hope is not always realized and in that void sadness falls. It isn’t the sadness eked on by some maudlin death scene. Tragedy, true tragedy, is about awareness. The veil lifter. Too many writers fail to know this and so, supplant what could be true tragedy with something that is merely a heart tugger. Sadness and tragedy walk together most of the time. But to feel sad is also a type of awareness, to leave the reader feeling sad in the midst of tragedy is to have taken them to a place where they become aware, they feel what is lost and missing. Someone does not have to die for this...