Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)
IN ANTICIPATION OF WRITING THIS REVIEW I read Barry Kitterman’s award winning debut novel, The Baker’s Boy (The Maria Thomas Award for Fiction), which I admired greatly, but which didn’t prepare me for the muscular, thoroughly authentic voice of From the San Joaquin.
From the San Joaquin has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio; it’s more a novel in form than a collection of short stories as well as a decidedly American story of small town life, but unlike Winesburg it never flirts with the grotesque, nor panders to notions of quaintness.
Covering a forty year span, Kitterman subtly weaves the lives of half a dozen main characters and a dozen subsidiary ones into a complex, multileveled narrative. It’s set in Ivanhoe, California in Tulare County, the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, a place where blue collar whites, Latinos, Native Americans, poor farmers and underemployed descendents of the Dust Bowl Okies reside and come up against each other, a place where the threat and solace of religion is omnipresent and striving for prideful work is a constant.
In “Union Wages,” Kitterman follows Johnny Foster, whom we met as an adolescent in an earlier story, “Boys from Poor Families,” itself a harrowing cautionary account of fundamentalist scripture made corporal. We find him now in Montana, a grown man, married to a Missoula girl. He’s an itinerant laborer who has landed a job building iron fences, working for the union wages of the title. One day a group of the ironworkers go to finish up a job in Anaconda.
We left Missoula Sunday morning in the dark, four of us jammed into one truck to save gas. . . . We had the back of the Jimmy filled with rolls of chain link and gunny sacks of fittings. Long sections of top rail arced over the cab of the truck, taut as a bow. There was a gun rack in the cab, though I’d never seen a gun in it before. . . . Maybe I know too much about guns. This one smelled like three-in-one oil.”
They arrive in Anaconda just after dawn and are met by a menacing cadre of union men. Only then do we, and the ironworkers, realize that the so called union wages are really scab payment. The gun comes into play, but not as we have feared. Instead, the moment becomes a morally irresolvable and moving encounter of working men pitted against working men, one that will challenge and rattle even the strongest union supporter among us.
Though Kitterman’s vision is more often than not imbued with hard hitting, painful stuff, occasionally a story is leavened by a marvelous sense of the absurd. “A Place in the Opera” is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read. It’s narrated by a young man who has loved opera ever since at eleven years old he attended a production of Madame Butterfly, where most of the other school kids couldn’t follow “all those white actors made up to look Japanese, singing in Italian.” In High School he jumps at the chance to perform in the chorus when the Great Central Valley Opera Troupe comes to town to do Hansel and Gretel. Just before dress rehearsal the boys’ chorus, costumed in green tights and tops with gossamer wings affixed with diaper pins, “like giant green birds looking to roost,” are confronted in the bathroom by “three senior boys in Levis and white t-shirts straight out of Okietown.” The singers’ dignity is saved and the situation diffused by Tavio, short for Octavio, their bass, an oversized Chicano boy.
“Make way,” said a deep voice. “I’m coming out.”
The five of us in green squeezed into the space in front of the urinals as the door to Tavio’s toilet stall swung open. Somehow, though he was dressed the same as we were, he didn’t resemble a fairy. He looked more like the Green Hornet, or Robin Hood’s friend, little John. . . .
“Tavio?” said the boy who had grabbed hold of my shirt . . . “you’re in the Opera?”
Tavio stepped up to the mirror and straightened the collar on his smock.
“Give me a cigarette,” he said.
“Sure thing,” said the boy. He looked around at his friends. “Give him a cigarette.”
. . . “In fact,” said Tavio, “give cigarettes to all these guys.”
What follows is a screamingly hilarious comedy of errors, an Opera Buffa in its own right, with an underpinning of sweet poignancy, proving that this wonderful Peace Corps writer is as masterful with comedy as he is with stories of tragic dimension.
Which brings me to the next to the last story, “Wedding Day,” which turns on anticipation of suddenly announced wedding plans of a young girl to a ne’er-do well youth, but is actually about a minister’s loss of faith. In the end Kitterman allows the minister, through a shocking and ineffable betrayal of the girl bride, to find grace.
And with that, Barry Kitterman, by dint of his honesty, imagination, compassion and palpable love of his characters, leaves us to savor his own literary acts of grace.
Marnie Mueller’s Peace Corps book, Green Fires: A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rainforest, was a winner of the Maria Thomas Award for Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp, where she was born. My Mother’s Island, which takes place in Puerto Rico, was a BookSense 76 selection and is currently under option for a feature film. She is at work on a non-fiction book, Triple Threat: The Story of a Japanese American Showgirl.
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