The Mexican Man in His Backyard

Reviewed by Jeff Chon

mexican man

The Mexican Man in His Backyard
By Stephen Gutierrez
Published 2014 by Roan Press, Sacramento
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0981596891

In the essay “Lucky Guys Forever,” the young narrator sits in a booth at Lucky Guys – a local burger joint and struggles with feelings of inadequacy as he watches a former classmate named Herrera preen over his beautiful ten-speed bicycle. We are told Herrera is in trouble, even though nothing particularly bad happened in Lucky Guys that day.

“Nothing bad happened at Lucky Guys,” the narrator tells us, “and that is the honest truth. In my story, certain versions are played with, but none of them untrue. That is the virtue of writing imaginative non-fiction. You get to do what the fuck you want.” This spirit of fearlessness propels the rest of the essay, as Gutierrez uses speculation and personal reflection to show us how something bad did indeed happen at Lucky Guys. Herrera had bullied the narrator throughout elementary school years before their encounter at Lucky Guys. Years after Lucky Guys, Herrera became a junkie. In the recursive landscape of memory, something bad did indeed happen at Lucky Guys: Herrera triggered Gutierrez’s retrospective impulses–impulses that carried through his teenage years and culminated in an essay filled with the regret and sadness that has clung to his memories like barnacles.

A sense of fearlessness permeates The Mexican Man in His Backyard, a collection of essays and short stories set in Gutierrez’s youth in East L.A. and adulthood in Fresno. Whether he’s writing about watching his father succumb to Huntington’s Disease, or the paternalistic privilege of white academics, or his inability to connect with the Mexican neighbor who’d watch Dodger games while sequestered in the back yard, Gutierrez illuminates the sadness and beauty of recollection with courage and clarity. Gutierrez gets to do what the “fuck” he wants because he’s telling the truth. We know he’s telling the truth because we believe the things he says. And readers believe the things he says because, from the first sentence on, our guide addresses the subjects of his pieces with tenderness, while assessing himself with a brutal honesty that is precise, lyrical, and unsettling.

Reading The Mexican Man in His Backyard, I was reminded of how all great writing aspires to draw the reader into its world. I spent a good chunk of my twenties living in East L.A. and I always felt like an outsider. No matter how hard my very kind neighbors tried to embrace my presence, I never felt as though I belonged there. This book was not only a homecoming of sorts, but by accessing his internal monologue in such an effortlessly conversational tone, Gutierrez finally made me feel like an insider, more than a decade and over 400 miles later.

 Creative non-fiction is unfairly seen as the bastion of the self-centered. The practitioners of this craft are frequently viewed as people who can only write about themselves, can only illuminate what has happened to them. With The Mexican Man in His Backyard, Gutierrez shows us how essayists have the ability to write about their lives in ways that resonate with all of our lives. Stephen Gutierrez isn’t merely writing about himself; he’s writing about all of us.



Broseph Joe Brody, Reality, and Virgil: A Descent into Wrestling

written by Joel Bahr

     On the first Friday of every month, about half a mile from Jack London Square, hundreds of people line up around the block, submit to pat downs, cram into a dark, sweaty, metal venue to watch half-naked men pretend to hurt each other. It’s called Hoodslam—an independent wrestling show—and every month grown men and women turn up for it to lose their fucking minds.
     The inside of the Oakland Metro Operahouse has vaulted wooden ceilings, three bars, and bathrooms without mirrors. I come into the show half-drunk and shell out a couple of crumpled singles for a plastic cup of PBR while I try to figure out what exactly I’m in for.
     Truth be told, I was one of the 15 American boys who didn’t watch some incarnation of WWE (then WWF) as a kid, and I actively tried to stay away from the older guys who wore black Undertaker shirts on the playground. I don’t get it. It isn’t real, I would think to myself before going back to playing baseball and minding my parents. Yeah, I was that kid. With the single overhead light spilling down onto the black mat, I am very keenly aware of how out of place I feel. The crowd is thick around the ring, and there’s a steady push in my back as more people file in.
     I drink half the beer very quickly and nod my head to “Mama Said Knock You Out.” More bodies come through the front door and the pulse in the room quickens. Fans that are close enough slap their palms on the mat in unison. Someone holds up a sign reading Welcome to BROakland. One person fires up a joint, and then five others do too. A band[1] on the corner of the stage screams out an intro that I only get pieces of. Drink some beers, smoke some weed, get fucked up it’s HOOD-SLAM. Don’t bring your fucking kids! HOOD-SLAM.
     A man appears in the ring in a cut off and white-framed sunglasses. He’s got thick, meaty arms, a close haircut, and a bottle of bourbon in his hand as he climbs the ropes and hams for the roaring crowd. This is Broseph Joe Brody, the voice of Hoodslam. He pours whiskey in the open mouths of fans on the other side of the ring, and then takes a pull for himself. Hands high above his head, he spits out the booze and lets the shouts from the fans soak a little before sitting down behind a table on stage and turning on his microphone.
     “Oh, hey bro!” he yells with a grin and then launches into the run-down of the show.
     It’s hot and loud, but Brody’s delivery is smooth, and despite myself, I’m excited. The first match pits Street Fighter’s Ryu against Mortal Kombat’s Sub-Zero. They pull punches, take dives, bulge their eyes in the face of pretend pain, occasionally sprinkling in elements of magic from the video games. Ryu charges a hadouken; Sub-Zero counters by “freezing” Ryu with blue silly string. Scorpion pops up from the crowd and mixes it up in the ring. It’s good fun, and it only gets better the more I think about it.
     “This is the realest shit in the history of real,” says Brody as Sub-Zero is freezing the Street Fighter hero. It’s a throw-away line, one that should get buried in all the rest of the commentary, but it resonates. It’s tongue in cheek, but there’s truth in it too. A new kind of reality emerges in the fantasy. We all agree that silly sting can immobilize, that punches are landing, that arms are about to be snapped, and once we all begin to collectively pretend, the airy world of shadow pain begins to stiffen. It all starts to matter.
     Scorpion ends up pinning Sub-Zero and Ryu, winning a match he wasn’t billed for. Brody is appropriately stunned, but regains enough poise to lead us further down the undercard. After Ryu and Sub-Zero comes the “Super Barrio Brother” Jesus Kruze and “Ultragirl” Brittany Wonder. Then a giant banana and the “Dark Noche” Bat Manuel. Then the Stoner Brothers Rick Scott and Scott Rick, then Doc Atrocity and his minions—the list goes on and on, and I fall deeper through the looking glass.
     After a while it all runs together for me—the whole experience melting into sound and light and screams. We all start moving together, the crowd, and the wrestlers, and the show. It becomes clear to me that we’re all in on it, that we always have been. We believe because it’s more fun that way, because there’s a charm in pretending.
     On the Hoodslam website they tell you not to bring your fucking kids. And they’re right, you shouldn’t. But not because of the violence, or the Fuck the Fans! Chant, or Broseph Joe Brody leaning over the ropes, pouring bourbon in thirsty, expectant mouths between bouts—you don’t bring your fucking kids because sooner or later you are one yourself. You don’t bring your fucking kids because before the end of the night you’re not going to be adult enough to take care of them.
     Despite the booze, and the Fuck the Fans!, and the metal, it’s play, and everyone loves it because it is precisely that. We lose ourselves in the noise, the way smoke hangs in light, and the fantasy—the incredible notion that if we all believe that this is real then it might actually be. Our eyes follow light and sound, it’s sleight of hand, beautiful and garish, but we never blink.
     We’re three hours removed from Ryu and Sub-Zero by now, and most of the crowd has wandered out. Somehow the show goes on. The last match of the night pairs Virgil Flynn, the “Best Athlete in the East Bay,” with B-Boy in a showdown between Northern and Southern California for Flynn’s title and a small, gold fanny-pack.
     Virgil, the hometown favorite, is taut, his body made of twisted wire. He’s quick, and flexible, and strong, and for half an hour he and B-Boy throw each other around the ring, cling to ropes, cast desperate eyes up to ceiling. I’m close enough now to see their mouths move while they grapple, whispering to each other what comes next.
     I don’t know any of the names of the moves that I’m seeing, but eventually B-Boy is on his back in the center of the ring and Virgil is climbing up the ropes, one by one, higher and higher into the air. We all know what will happen next. Virgil spreads his arms out wide, and yells with anticipation and belief. This is real. I look at him at the top of the ropes, chest heaving, face locked in faux-anguish, fingers flaring off of his open palms, and I know that I’m going with him as he launches himself into the air. I’ll follow him through the fantasy to our new reality. I’ll follow him this month, and the month after that, and the month after that.


[1]   The Hoodslam Band, as they’re formally known, change their name from month to month, each time a different incarnation of the same dirty joke: Urethra Franklin, Dusty Loads, the Seattle SeaCocks, Bare Naked Labia…You get the idea.

Joel Bahr is a contributing editor for The East Bay Review and a writer living in Oakland. 

A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies

Reviewed by Joel Bahr

Published 2014 by Outpost19 | San Francisco
ISBN 9781937402624

“Everyone thinks a lot of things are going to happen,” the narrator tells Moody Fellow, the central character in Douglas Watson’s A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies, “but only some of them do.”

Indeed, the conventional workings of novels—a problem resolved, or a lesson learned, or a redemption made good—don’t ever come into play in Watson’s first novel. The title is a dare of sorts. Watson tips his hand from jump street, and pulls the reader along in direct, stripped bare prose as he slowly teases out Moody’s origins, his failures (and eventual success) in love, and, ultimately, his death.

A Moody Fellow is quick and easy, a fairytale telling of an ordinary life, one where the fourth wall is broken so regularly that it’s reduced to rubble by the time Moody meets his messy end, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the novel’s pages, we follow Moody from childhood to college and eventually into the unnamed City. It’s a sparse world, and for a majority of the book we only see Moody fail. He is earnest and too nice for women to love as he bounces from one unfulfilling place to another. Throughout the book Moody sits at a piano, though untrained, and produces wild, erratic concertos from his heart. A strange girl sees him play one night, and takes him into his arms, eventually bringing Moody the love he seeks.

A few other characters dart in and out of the novel—a woman so beautiful that men (and birds, too) catch sight of her beauty and fall down dead at her feet; her insecure boyfriend; an artist who produces statues of cubes; a psychiatrist who worries about his wife’s infidelity—but primarily the novel is Moody’s, and he fills it with sincerity and false starts.

The novel evokes a sense of waiting. While the fairytale feel opens the door for profundity, either from Moody or the narrator, it never really comes. The closest we come to it is in the book’s waning pages where Moody is pulled from the dictation of his life to have a conversation—an exit interview—with the narrator.

Moody, upon being informed of his impending death, protests, “But I’m in love!” only to be undercut by the narrator. “So what? So are billions of others.” The only redemption for Moody is found in knowing that he had been loved before dying—a gift not granted to all. And the novel, which ultimately is a love story of a quiet, ordinary life, is also redeemed by Moody’s romantic. While there may have been a sense of expectancy because of the form of the novel, the real trick here is that sometimes—in both art and life—things don’t go as we expect them to. If the title of the book is a dare, a challenge to watch things unfold exactly as they were promised, then those readers who follow through can pull some satisfaction from knowing that Moody, who has loved and been loved, gets a happier ending than some.

In his exit interview, Moody asks “Shouldn’t I have to make some kind of big definitive choice or screw something up and then try to fix it?”But life has a way of not being art, the narrator reminds Moody, and after Moody offers a truism on love (“It’s something you go out and look for in the world, I think, but it’s really inside you, is what I would say if pressed.”) the narrator dabs a magic ointment behind his ears and sweeps away any memory of the conversation.

A Moody Fellow is a work that imitates the majority of normal life—full of disappointments and misunderstandings. Pages turn quickly, lulling readers into a world that resembles a life they’re familiar with, but novel has a strange gravity to it. For those who stick it through, they’ll find there is no ointment behind their ears, and in the days after tucking Moody Fellow away they’ll notice him lingering in their mind.