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Six Kinds of Sky

San Diego Union Tribune

AT HOME IN THE ‘SKY’; Luis Alberto Urrea’s stories roam through a
poetic, fabulistic Southwest


At one point during a story from Luis Alberto Urrea’s new collection “Six Kinds of Sky,” a character stands next to his broken-down car, looks up into the cold Wyoming wind, and realizes how alone he is. “He’d never seen so much sky. It went up one side of the world and cut an arc to the other side and seemed to attach itself to the horizon, as if the little sage bushes out toward Nebraska were buttons.”

The character is a man named Hubbard, who has made a defiant gesture aimed at his ex-wife—stealing her Volvo and driving it across the West. When the Volvo dies and leaves him stranded in the middle of his journey, an Indian named Don Her Many Horses stops to consider the pros and cons of rescuing him. While Don is unsure whether or not to give the angry white guy a lift, he does loan him a gun, and watches with amusement as Hubbard “kills” the car, confirming that “The entire white race has gone insane.”

Hubbard, like so many other characters in Urrea’s exquisite collection, can only contemplate the sky for so long before bending beneath its weight. And while the skies above Urrea’s stories change texture, from the star-filled night over Mazatlan to the too-wide expanse above the Sioux nation, they rarely provide Urrea’s troubled protagonists with answers.

An award-winning poet, fiction writer and essayist, Urrea should be required reading for anyone living in the Southwest. Pure Urrea means being part Mexican, part Indian and part gringo. Reading his work means getting lost in stories that have both fable-like romance and visceral hopelessness, in voices that shift beautifully from sharp and quick-witted to meditative and soft.

In “A Day in the Life,” we eavesdrop on a Tijuana family that makes its living picking through the remains of the city dump. Despite the decay surrounding them, the patriarch still looks at his wife, mother of seven children, and remembers falling in love with her: “But suddenly, and he can’t explain it, Juanita became dear to him again. She was cutting the head off a chicken, and he immediately realized he loved her. She seemed so small to him then, so brave in the morning sun. The blood flew all over her arms, glistening jewels. Though he had no word for glisten, he can imagine what jewels in the sun would look like.
“Like sparkling red water.”

Although Urrea is a professed wanderer, he has San Diego roots. He lived here in the ‘70s and ‘80s, attended UCSD, started a guerilla theater troupe on campus and wrote lyrics for a local rock band. “A Day in the Life” is drawn from Urrea’s experience working with a Tijuana missionary group. (Among Urrea’s other books are “By the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the Mexican Border” and “Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border.”)

The writer’s personal life is also tangibly felt in “Father Returns From the Mountains,” an eerie recounting of his father’s death in a car accident (“There is a dime in the broken driver’s seat. Blood where the radio should be”). Originally published by Ursula K. Le Guin in a 1980 anthology, “Father” is the best display of Urrea’s poetics at work, deftly balanced between lush detail and stark reality.
Urrea’s experiences have served him well in the literary arena. His last book, the memoir “Nobody’s Son,” received the 1999 American Book Award. If his other stories in this collection are as autobiographical, then Urrea himself is leading a rich life, beneath skies of many colors.
- April 14, 2002 

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