It’s a good collection but there’s a sameness, tonally and thematically, to a number of the stories which meant they blurred together rather than stood out.

opening remarks

I now complete my read through of this year’s National Book Award longlist with The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón.  This book is a collection of 10 short stories – the second collection on the NBA longlist – and as with my review of Her Body and Other Parties I will comment on each piece.

knee-jerk observations

The Thousands is a vignette, less than a handful of pages, about a community that takes advantage of the Government’s Law not to bulldoze houses.  The community then spends an entire night building dwellings on unclaimed land knowing that if they fail, if the houses are incomplete, then they, and their half-finished work, will be booted (and bulldozed) off the land.  There’s something so hopeful and naive about the story, or maybe that’s just the cynic in me that imagines a less favourable end, one where the Government, wanting to be rid of immigrants and outsiders, bulldozes the houses anyway.

The Ballad of Rocky Rontal packs an entire novel’s worth of story in about eight pages.  We first meet Adrano ‘Rocky’ Rontal as a young boy and then track him through an all too familiar story about poverty, a less than ideal childhood, gang violence and prison.  Because it’s so short the piece maintains a powerful sense of fatalism.

The title story, The King is Always Above the People is about a 19-year-old who leaves town to make a life for himself in the city.  When his girlfriend gives birth to their son back home he is compelled to return.  There’s a general reluctance, on the part of our main character, to take responsibility for his family.  He gets a job at the bank as a security guard but with a roving gang of hoodlums in the area, holding up similar establishments, he spends his time waiting for the penny to drop, waiting to be robbed.  In addition, his own father wants his son to leave, believes he’s not up to the task of being a family man.  I can’t hold a hand to the heart and say I fully understood what Alarcon was trying to achieve with this piece.  There’s this recurring image – the source of the title – of a deposed General hanging from the gallows, witnessed by a crowd.  According to Alarcon (in an interview with NPR) this evokes a notion of patriarchy and authority, and I suppose the way our protagonist is treated by his father plays to that, but it never gelled for me.

After three mostly straightforward narratives, I was taken aback by the sheer weirdness of Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot.  It’s an absurdist piece where our main character, who has just been fired from a call centre, reflects on that time he and Abraham Lincoln were lovers.  I’m not sure if the story works if Lincoln’s presence in our time is distracting or a commentary on his legacy or just an excuse to write a queer love story featuring the 16th President of the USA, but I love it anyway for being so different and strange.

The Provincials echoes The King Is Always Above the People in as much as they both deal with the notion of people leaving a rural town for a better life in the city.  In this story, a father, Manuel, and his son, Nelson, return to the father’s home (where, at one point, he was Mayor) to arrange some of the “postmortem details” of Manuel’s deceased brother.  Nelson, is a wannabe actor who may, or may not, be joining his brother in America.  Part of the story is a conversation between father and son about what Nelson intends to do with his life, but most of the story focuses on the class distinction between the city and rural, which is borne out during a late night and boozy discussion at a bar with Manuel’s old friends. It’s a good piece of writing, evoking a sense of the obsolete and the redundant for those left behind.

Extinct Anatomies attempts to answer a question that many have asked: what would it be like to have your teeth drilled by a dentist while also feeling sexually aroused?  The answer is… you might jizz your pants but it’s not going to be much fun.  Not a world-changing story.

Republica and Grau is the intersection where 10-year old Maico and a blind man beg for coins. It’s a mean and dark little piece about manipulation and feeding on the guilt of others.  I loved it.

The Bridge has a sense of the familiar about it.  We have a nephew dealing with the estate of his recently passed Uncle (The Provincials). The Uncle (and his wife) were blind (Republica and Grau). There’s a strong class distinction: the nephew is wealthy, the Uncle less so (a reverse of The Provincials). And the relationship between father and son, nephew and Uncle are key (The Provincials, The King Is Always Above the People). The story also deals with insanity, our protagonist’s father – a once famous lawyer – is in an asylum for stabbing his client.  Like a number of the pieces in the collection, it’s sad, laced with bitter resentment and anger.

The Lord Rides A Swift Cloud is about a man – possibly Alarcon himself – travelling from town to town.  At one point he meets an old man who won’t leave him alone.   We discover that the old man planned to rob our protagonist but decided not the follow through.  It’s an insubstantial story and not just because it’s so short.

While not my favourite piece in the collection, The Auroras is probably the strongest.  Like a number of the men in Alarcón’s fiction, Hernan has travelled elsewhere, a Port city, in a bid to put his marriage behind him.  He meets Clarissa, whose husband is out at sea for a protracted period of time, and they soon become lovers.  Hernan has a Doctorate in Literature but Clarissa seemingly confuses this with a medical degree and soon other women are dropping by the house on the pretence that Hernan will check them over… except these physical checks become… more physical.  Hernan, reluctantly, takes on the role of the local gigolo with Clarissa his pimp.  Alarcón weaves the two strands – Hernan’s recollection of his marriage and eventual break-up and his transition into the town’s local fuck-buddy – expertly.  While the story ends a little abruptly and unexpectedly, almost like a thriller with a twist ending, this is a strong piece to cap off the collection.

The Gist of It

There is a sameness to the stories that feature in The King Is Alway Above The People.  This isn’t always an issue, I like a writer who is willing to explore the same themes from a number of different perspectives.  Alarcon’s themes around fatherhood and class and the divide between the regional and the metropolitan are worth exploring, but having the point of view character be exclusively male meant that tonally the stories begin to blur together.  It says something that my favourite piece, the one that’s worth the cover price of the collection, is the story that genuinely feels out of place.    The brilliant and absurdist Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot shows that Alarcon has the range as a writer, I just wish more of it was on display in this book.