Guest Review: Clifford Garstang

deviltalk.jpgDevil Talk
Daniel A. Olivas
Bilingual Press
158 pp.

What enchants the reader most in this fast-paced story collection is the element of surprise, the frequent juxtaposition of the realistic and the supernatural. There is a swirl of the fantastic with darkly-observed social commentary, of Latin American imagery and mythology with the gritty streets (and freeways) of L.A. It is not a stretch to associate the tone of these magical pieces with the stories of Gabriel García Márquez or Jorge Luis Borges.

As befits the title, the Devil makes frequent appearances. In the opening story, “Monk,” a couple’s cat is named Diablo, and the reader can’t help wondering whether this feline Devil is somehow behind the central character’s otherwise-unexplained rebelliousness and his unsettling dreams. In the title story, “Devil Talk,” the Devil actually knocks politely on the front door, planning to make a deal with Jesus Zendejas, only to leave disappointed since Jesus (now Ysrael after his conversion to Judaism to please his Jewish wife) as a non-Christian is no longer eligible for Hell. The Devil takes a female form in “Don de la Cruz and the Devil of Malibu,” a chilling story about class, and in “The Plumed Serpent of Los Angeles,” where the displaced Aztec god Quetzalcoatl tries to seduce La Diabla in order to regain his throne. In all these stories we discover that it just doesn’t pay to bargain with the Devil.


Even when the Devil is not named, though, evil appears in the world of the collection, in the form of child abuse, rape, racism-domination in all its various guises. “La Guaca,” one of the shortest stories in the collection, is a dark parable about exploitation. An unnamed man (known to the villages as El Huérfano–The Orphan–because he has no family) runs the finest restaurant in the pueblo. It too has no name, but the villagers call it “La Guaca,” which means “tomb” but also has the sense of “buried treasure.” El Huérfano announces his intention to take a bride and invites the eligible women of the pueblo to dine at the restaurant. But there is a catch. Only the perfect woman will survive the feast’s poisons to become his bride. And sure enough, one by one the women die until only the most beautiful woman remains. It seems they are meant to be together until he tastes his own deadly meal on her lips.

Where the stories are most successful, the supernatural elements are employed to reveal complete tales, some in the folk tradition, some that revolve around unexplained mysteries, some that turn on cultural conflict. On the other hand, the most satisfying and nuanced story of the collection is the least magical. Early in “A Melancholy Chime,” a story told in reverse chronological order down to the inverted numbering of its sections, a professor suffers the consequences of an affair with a student, and from then on, moving backward in time, his multi-faceted character is revealed. The result is a vivid portrait of a man who is a flawed reflection of his past, rather than one who is merely explained by the presence of some mystical force.

If this magical collection has a weakness it would be that some of the stories feel fragmentary, as if they are the missing pieces to some other puzzle–polished and interesting, but in themselves not as compelling as the more developed stories are. In “Willie,” for example, a pre-teen girl observes her possibly cross-dressing brother being berated by their father, a man who is clearly disappointed in his son

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