I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference in Portland this past March. I had over-scheduled myself, it was lunch time, and I was in that “must find place to sit and eat before I kill someone” headspace. I asked Rafael Alvarez if I could join him, since his table was the first one I saw with an adequate amount of empty space for both me and my lunch. We ended up in one of the most enjoyable conversations I had at AWP. As soon as I got home I ordered his book, and it's finally worked it's way to the top of my TBR pile.
Basilio Boullosa Stars in The Fountain of Highlandtown is a collection of linked story stories about a man named Basilio and his friends and family. Deeply rooted in place with a solid sense of tradition, there is still a strong feeling of impermanence, of impending change running through the lines. Basilio is always, it seems, in a liminal space between who he is and who he wants to be.
The book is filled with flawed yet deeply human characters, but the crux is this:
“How many sins could you commit in one day and still tell yourself that you were a good human?”
Not,“be a good human,” but “tell yourself that you were a good human.” a careful discernment, but Alvarez is deliberate with every word he writes.
Sometimes Basilio is able to tell himself that he’s a good human, sometimes he can’t. Alvarez has a knack for capturing the human essence—the gritty, unkempt feel of life going off the tracks. Filled with color, scent and music, heavily laden with interior thought, this is a contemporary classic worthy of sharing shelf space with the likes of Breece D’J Pancake and could hold its own next to Faulkner. (Though Alvarez’s work is much more accessible than Faulkner’s, it evokes mood in a similar way.)
“Basilio was convinced it had something to do with the smell, the way Grandpop’s vestibule always carried the scent of old keys and coffee grounds boiled in a sauce pan.” (99)
Alvarez’s prose is dense and rich, like a multi-layered torte. When your writing teacher told you to make every word drive the story forward, this is exactly what they meant. Not a word wasted, no fluff that makes the author feel good but doesn’t impart anything on the reader.
Basilio is a painter never given his due, and his art is his one real companion in what is a life of solitude, even among people.
“He talks about colors as if they are alive and in between all the loose words he talks about his grandfather.” (83)
“…he tried to capture Trudy the way he remembered her back when she wanted him: riding a bicycle through her parents’ neighborhood…"
Alvarez’s lyrical prose is beautiful and haunting, the city a breathing member of the cast. The characters and mood of Basilio Boullosa Stars in The Fountain of Highlandtown linger long after the final chapter.
“…a truth that Basilio would try to stuff into poor boxes and sewer holes for years to come.” (69)
Copyright © 2019 Lara Lillibridge
Public domain imagery courtesy of Snappygoat.com