The King is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcon
Whenever someone has made the 20 under 40 list, I know I need to pay attention, but that's not an exertion when it comes to Daniel Alarcon's writing. The King is Always Above the People is a nearly flawless assembly of short stories, which offer hints of his own life between Lima, Peru and Oakland, California, with rich characters, vibrant street corners and a bitter humor that simultaneously enchants and disenchants.
While often the locations go unnamed, so many are stories of migration. To the capital, from the capital, to the United States. Always elsewhere, with the notion of 'home' evermore evasive. But there is a beauty and myth to some of the homes that rise overnight, like the 'Thousands', where people built their homes out of any material they could find and which grew, to shelter far more than Thousands. It would come to shelter the blind uncle and aunt of one of these characters, whose lives were lost when a bridge collapsed and, without any road block, the couple went tumbling to their deaths. The nephew goes to their dark home, comfort not in the things that can be seen, but in that which can be heard, felt, shared and known.
In another story, we see the circumstances that break a man down in Los Angeles. A violent father and a lack of money and food that leads to a sweet boy growing into a gang member, that further leads to lock up; the interplay of the hope of redemption and the risk of recidivism. In the villages, there are bank robberies or fires. The justice system can do little to thwart it. The capital, dirty as it is always portrayed to be, is better for those who have left home. Those who have always remained are proud for staying.
Those who go and those who remain, Alarcon captures - poetically, lyrically - the tether that binds the people, even from a distance. My favorites in the collection were his two novellas - 'The Provincials' and 'The Auroras'. The first is the story of a father and son's journey back to the village from which the father came. While the son is the one who remained, not in the village, but in the capital, he plays the brother who left for California. Much of the story takes place at a bar amongst broken, prideful men still in the village, envious of the father for reaching the capital, and the son, to their knowledge, who made it to America. Their exchange, scripted so delicately by Alarcon, touches on so many layers of life and legacy, I was in awe after.
In 'The Auroras', a man leaves behind his broken marriage to find himself welcomed by a woman whose husband is a sailor. Lonely and lost, he becomes buoyed by this woman's welcoming of him. While she is at work, more and more woman come to see him. Only after weeks have passed does he realize he has become the plaything to a town occupied by women whose husbands are all too often called to see. But by then, trapped, sheltered, comforted, what is there to do but comply?
Alarcon has a fantastic ability to tell unique stories about a spreading, globalizing world, one that brings with it possibility and lost possibility all at once. Highly recommended.