Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Steven Torres' serious, funny short stories

I once had a colleague who had been born in Puerto Rico and who would hold forth at the drop of a hat on race and ethnicity in America. In fact, he wouldn't wait for the hat to drop; he'd speechify whether his listeners wanted to hear him or not.

His saving graces were considerable intelligence and a bracing questioning of our industry's orthodoxy at a time when diversity was a corporate buzzword. He dismissed the Miami Herald's Spanish-language edition, for example, insisting that Latinos in the United States wanted to read and speak English.

I thought of this when reading one of Steven Torres' stories about Ray Cruz, the most dangerous man in New York City:
"The man holding Carver thought for a second, then started shouting in Italian again.
"`Speak English, maricon!' Ray roared. At the same time he pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the gunman’s right shoulder. He let go of Carver and went from crouching to sitting, and Ray Cruz took a step closer, put another bullet in the man’s chest, six inches below his chin."
That's humor about which could write a paper or at least rub one's chin thoughtfully after one got done laughing.

Another thing I like is Torres' juxtaposition of stories about Ray Cruz with others about a counterpart named Viktor Petrenko. Without providing too much of a spoiler, I'll say I read each as the flip side of the other, or else as contrasting perspectives on the moral destiny of men who do bad things.

(No, Torres says, he did not know when he wrote the Petrenko stories that there was a celebrated figure skater of the same name. There are no double Salchows or triple Axels in these stories, and the protagonist's landings are anything but smooth.)
Steven Torres is author of the Precinct Puerto Rico novels, The Concrete Maze, and the short-story collections Killing Ways, Killing Ways 2, The Box and Other Odd Stories.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Loren Eaton said...

He dismissed the Miami Herald's Spanish-language edition, for example, insisting that Latinos in the United States wanted to read and speak English.

Oddly enough, the good folks at El Nuevo Herald apparently think that my household wants to read the paper in Spanish, judging from the free copies that occasionally land at my doorstep.

July 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And El Nuevo Herald has been going for a number of years now, so maybe it is a success -- and maybe the Herald wants Anglos to teach themselves Spanish with it.

July 17, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

He dismissed the Miami Herald's Spanish-language edition, for example, insisting that Latinos in the United States wanted to read and speak English

This is too generalized a claim. For example, a friend of mine in advertising (mostly for radio and print, incl. newspapers) told me that Los Angeles's primary Spanish-language newspaper, "La Opinión," has had fairly steady subscriptions and newsstand sales rates over the last 20 years, in spite of the enormous influx of Mexican and Central American Spanish-speaking residents in SoCal during that period. And no English-language newspapers in Los Angeles have had a proportionate increase in subscriptions and newsstand sales.

The claim may hold generally true for Florida (where Spanish-speakers are mostly of Cuban descent) but is not true of Spanish-speakers in the Los Angeles area.

In other words, Latinos in the US are just as diverse in wants and tastes -- including not caring to read any newspaper at all -- as any other ethnic group. There is no single, monolithic "Latino community." In spite of what politicians want us to think...

July 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I suspect you're right that the claim is too generalized. But at the time, and in this part of the country, and this industry, his comment was a protest against the sort of monolithic thinking you decry.

But a Puerto Rican hit man yelling at another gangster to "Speak English!" is funny no matter where one stands, especially when he proceeds to insult him in Spanish. Any bit of humor on matters of ethnicity is welcome in America because it's so rare.

And that reminds me of a funny line I once heard in a performance by a Puerto Rican comedy troupe. The routine had an actor bragging about the cultural accomplishments of Puerto Ricans, then interrupting his litany
to stage-whisper to the audience, "Are there any Cubans in the room? No? Good?" before raising his voice again and adding: "And we invented salsa music, too."

July 17, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Any bit of humor on matters of ethnicity is welcome in America because it's so rare.

I agree! It could do a lot to clear the air if we were all "permitted" to laugh at each others' foibles.

The example you cite (Puerto Rican yells "Speak English!" to fellow gangster) reminds me of 2 things:

1. The periodic encounters Salvo Montalbano has with his questore Bonetti-Alderighi in which B-A says something like: "Montalbano, don't you understand Italian?!" A not-so subtle dig at Montalbano's Sicilian roots, often considered inferior by other, esp. N Italians.

2. My best girlfriend (is is still OK to say stuff like that at my age??) is of Puerto Rican descent. In art history graduate school the department head and ruling Marxist (a German native) wrote up a review of her one time that said she, by majoring in Byzantine art, was "not living up to her Mexican heritage." Well, she's always been a tough broad and she first said she couldn't possibly live up to her nonexistent Mexican heritage and then denounced him for his narrow assumption that any Latina should, by definition, major only in some aspect of Chicano/Latino/Hispanic art history.

July 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re North-South in Italy, Camilleri will occasionally get in a dig at the Northern League.

And that reminds me of the day I happened to be at San Francesco in Arezzo the same day the then president of Italy, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro (a dapper white-haired old gent wearing a snappy scarf) was there for some event, probably Piero della Francesce-related. He was greeted by four or five protesters from the Northern League. I asked one of them, in Italian, what one word on his sign meant. "Traitor," he said.

Much better you should say "best girlfriend" than "gal pal." I'd have said to the idiot German professor, "No, but you're living up to your Prussian heritage" -- then hope that he or she was Bavarian.

July 18, 2012  

Post a Comment

<< Home