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Six Kinds of Sky

Rain Taxi

Luis Urrea’s Six Kinds of Sky demands attention. It’s the kind of book that reaches right into your heart, right where the blood is, and makes it pump a little faster. The stories are full of emotional suspense—that’s certain—but the real dynamo in Six Kinds of Sky is its fidelity to life. “Poignancy” is a word that comes to mind, along with hilarity, sadness, and, perhaps, acceptance.

Written in deft, lyric prose, Six Kinds of Sky offers the reader the voyeuristic thrill of following characters into worlds most of us never experience. Part travelogue, part anthropological study (with some thinly transformed biography throw in), the work ranges from Lafayette, Louisiana to the Provencal mountains, from the betrayal of love in a Mexican village movie theater to horse ranching in the Sioux Nation. Urrea’s skill as an accomplished nonfiction writer (Across the Wire; Nobody’s Son) gives his fiction an unmistakably profession edge—high-precision details and sentences editors pay for word by word.

The most unforgettable story in the collection is “A Day in the Life,” about a withering lot of trash pickers in the Tijuana garbage dumps. The subject matter, which the writer has explored in other contexts, lends itself to pathos, but Urrea’s narrative dexterity renders the daily roller-coater ride of a hapless family clan dignified, even noble. Structured in passages subtitled with the hour, the story begins at 5:00 am and ends, after an apocalypse, at 2:00 am the next day. The painstaking preparations for going to the dump—the gloves, the plastic bags, the clothing—owe much to a reporter’s eye. We see those people. We feel for them. And we are as much astonished by the tragic-comedic vicissitudes of unconscionable poverty as they, themselves, seem to be.

Urrea’s ability to fascinate and move the reader is perhaps just as remarkable in “First Light,” which portrays the awakening of love and manhood. Gentleness and violence vie for control as the testosterone seems to rise from the page. Set in a Northern Mexican village, the story provides a glimpse into the habits and taboos of the rising Middle Class. Urrea has a knack for handling a whole bunch of characters at the same time—while keeping each separate in the reader’s mind—and he uses this skill to advantage here with a slew of characters that alternately abet and frustrate a doomed courtships.

In “Amazing Grace: Story and Writer,” Urrea’s afterword to the volume, the author explains that the town of Rosario, where “First Light” and other fictions are set, is the real town where his father was born. But the story, he tells us, didn’t “happen.” And this is precisely where the strange art of fiction lies—because all the stories in Six Kinds of Sky are perfectly “true.”

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