Life’s big dramas: Fact and fiction

Q. What does a white lesbian essayist in Portland, Oregon, have in common with a Mexican American novelist born in Tijuana and now writing from Chicago?

A. Talent, for one. And an ability to burrow down deep into the complexities of family and relationships, with humor, pathos and wisdom.

Kate Carroll de Gutes is the author of “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Her debut collection of essays won the 2016 Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction and the Lambda Literary Award for memoir.

Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of “The House of Broken Angels.” He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for an earlier book and his latest was just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

On my recent trip to London, I got ambitious and took both books with me. Thanks to a head start here at home, I finished de Gutes’ book on the flight over there and completed Urrea’s book on the return flight. Both were satisfying reads, different on the surface but similar in less obvious ways.

***

I was already familiar with Kate’s work. I dove into her second book, “The Authenticity Experiment,” after hearing her read from it during a book launch event a couple years ago. I loved that she took a 30-day challenge she gave herself to be authentic on social media and turned the collection of blogs into a book.

Read my blog post: “Daring to be real in a world of perfection

In her first book, she writes about a spectrum of big issues — self-identity and coming out; love and loss; marriage and divorce; quarreling parents dealing with failing health in their old age.

Kate is brutally, beautifully honest in writing about all of it. The inner turmoil and the out-in-the-open tensions as she embraced her sexual identity. The thrill of being able to marry a woman, followed by the despair of divorce. Coping with her mother’s failing memory while dealing with her angry father’s resentment that his wife’s heart bypass operation is taking away attention from his own cardiac surgery years earlier.

Kate Carroll de Gutes

In each of those situations, Kate opens up in a way that draws us into those relationships, where we feel the anticipation, the joy, the disappointment, disgust and resignation associated with life’s peaks and valleys.

Reflecting on her marriage that lasted 23 years, she calls it a success when compared to the statistic that most first marriages last 7 to 8 years and 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. In light of that, she says, she and her ex-wife Judy should be held up as role models.

“It took such a long time for our relationship to be recognized as legitimate by our families and society,” she writes. “Judy’s family, in particular, believed our relationship was ’empty and loveless,’ and I think they had been expecting its demise all along, as if we didn’t have, couldn’t have what it took to go the distance and make marriage work.”

But looking back on that marriage, she also sees what it gave her:

“This woman helped make me who I am. I am from her. We grew up together. Came out together. Figured out roommate, spousal equivalent, partner, and wife together. And I have removed myself from her, as well, expurgating my history as well as my heart.”

***

Urrea is someone I should have known about long ago but only became familiar with recently. A friend invited me to a talk he was giving in Portland and loaned me the book when I couldn’t make the event. How is it that I was in the dark about an accomplished Latino author who teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago and who’s written more than a dozen fiction and non-fiction books plus three volumes of poetry?

Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother. His newest book is infused with references to both sides of the border, though it is squarely set in the San Diego home of one Miguel Angel de la Cruz, affectionately known to his family as Big Angel.

Big Angel is the ailing patriarch of a sprawling clan that includes siblings, several children and too many grandkids to count, plus aunts, uncles, cousins and his own dying mother.

There’s a Little Angel in the story, too. It’s Big Angel’s half brother, born to an American woman who had a fling with their Mexican father. Little Angel lives in Seattle, where he teaches literature and is viewed as something of a puzzle if not an outcast by everyone else in the family who has remained in San Diego.

Luis Alberto Urrea

The story is built around the preparations for one last birthday party for Big Angel. But as the date nears, his own mother, nearly 100 years old, dies herself, meaning the family must bury her on the same weekend they’ve come together to celebrate Big Angel and thank him for all he’s done to create opportunities for them as first- and second-generation immigrants in a country that would just as soon rather not have them here.

Interestingly, the book stems from a real-life situation in the author’s family. Urrea says his eldest brother, Juan, was in the last month of a terminal disease when he had to bury his mother and the funeral landed on the day before his 74th birthday.

Like Big Angel, Juan sat in his wheelchair and accepted thanks for good deeds done during his life — think of an army of relatives paying their respects as if he were Don Corleone in “The Godfather.”

A reviewer in TIME magazine calls Urrea’s book “a celebration of the Mexican-American family.”

Read the review here: “The House of Broken Angels Is a Love Song to the Mexican-American Family.”

Reading it as a third-generation Mexican American myself, I had no problem recognizing the archetypal characters in the book and appreciating the many cultural references and food products referenced throughout. My mom, too, loved her instant coffee with Carnation canned milk to lighten it up.

Urrea’s characters drop a lot of Spanish and Spanglish into their conversations, which lends an obvious authenticity to the dialogue, but I have to wonder how many readers were left scratching their heads and missing out on the linguistic nuances.

It’s an entertaining book, though I have to confess I had trouble at times keeping some of the characters straight because of their sheer number. There are tensions and rivalries among some, teasing and flirting between others, constant judging of each other, and a lifetime of memories and their meanings for Big Angel to sort through in his final days.

Mexican families are known as big and boisterous and close-knit. While there’s a lot of truth to that stereotype, I also know the image doesn’t always hold up as true. In Urrea’s telling, Big Angel is at once the backbone and the beating heart of the de la Cruz family — and he writes with tenderness in a scene toward the end of the book where Little Angel and Big Angel have just finished fighting. Literally.

Little Angel took a deep breath. “I know you hated me for leaving. I know you thought I looked down on all of you. Well, maybe I did. All my life I thought I had to escape to survive. Maybe even to escape you. And now you are leaving me, and I can’t imagine the world without you. I always thought I didn’t really have the father I wanted. And all this time it was you.

“To be here now, to see what you have made, humbles me. The good parts and the bad. It doesn’t matter. I thought I was going to save the world, and here you were all along, changing the world day by day. minute by minute.”

Big Angel was going to say something but decided against it.

Beautiful.

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