Reviewed by Jeff Chon
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.