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Six Kinds of Sky

Publishers Weekly
Urrea, best known for his hard-hitting nonfiction (Across the Wire; Nobody’s Son), proves once again to be an eloquent and elegiac spokesman for the down-and-out and the disaffected in this collection of six stories whose settings range from Mexico to the Sioux nation in South Dakota. His protagonists are usually Hispanics and Native Americans whose struggles are documented most touchingly in one of the two longer stories, “A Day in the Life,” which describes the plight of a poverty-stricken group of garbage pickers whose lives are torn apart by tragedy after they are forced to move from Mexico City to Tijuana.

Urrea turns his attention to the brokenhearted in “Taped to the Sky,” in which a man who takes to the road after his wife leaves him breaks down in the middle of Wyoming, where he learns the reason for his journey from the Native American man who helps him. He offers a different perspective on the Native American experience in “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses,” which describes the sorrow of a man who marries a Sioux woman who succumbs to alcoholism, while “Father Returns From the Mountain” is a touching story of a man’s attempt to come to terms with his father’s death in an auto accident. Urrea is a poetic writer who draws strong characters and wears his literary compassion on his sleeves, and he uses all of his gifts to full advantage here.
Booksense
Stories this good are a reason to get up in the morning.
This is an amazing collection of short stories. There are stories here that I’ll probably be thinking about for long after I’ve forgotten most of the books I’ve ever read, the TV I’ve watched, and the films I’ve seen. They range from pretty damn funny (“Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush”) to strong stuff like “A Day in the Life,” which chronicles the lives of an extended family of garbage pickers in Mexico City. “Father Returns from the Mountain” along with the afterword is part of Urrea’s ongoing records of the mythos of his father’s hometown, Rosario, Mexico.

If nothing else, pick up the book for the last story, “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses.” A man goes to the South Dakota reservation where his wife had grown upand left so she could be with himfor her funeral. He remembers his early unthinking racism, the chance meeting with Joni Her Many Horses, and how the in years since she smiled less and less; drank more and more. It is more than this, less than this ... a story, like all good stories, that runs deep. Stories this good are a reason to get up in the morning.
ForeWord Magazine
In this collection of short stories, the author takes the reader on a roadtrip vaster than Jack Kerouac and Hunter Thompsons’, encompassing not only different physical countries, but also broad internal nations of the psyche. Lands of language, not only Spanish and English, but the way these languages are spoken by specific groups are revealed...Richard Rodriguez, renowned essayist, says that we are writing the new stories of America: the new, mixed race, code-switching America. Urrea is writing these stories.
In this collection of short stories, the author takes the reader on a roadtrip vaster than Jack Kerouac and Hunter Thompsons’, encompassing not only different physical countries, but also broad internal nations of the psyche. Lands of language, not only Spanish and English, but the way these languages are spoken by specific groups are revealed, for example, the English of “Indian Country,” the Spanish of the dump-pickers.

The stories range from deep in the “madre tierra,” the motherland, Mexico, through gringolandia, all the way to an Indian reservation near the Canadian border. The wisdom of Mexico, full of chaos and tradition, the land of grandparents, contrasts with the anonymity and reckless responsibility of more recent arrivals in the U.S. Not stopping north of the Mexican border, the essays travel to another land peopled by the raza, or Indians. In “Taped to the Sky,” Don Her Many Horses, speculates on the imminent fate of the white guy, Hubbard, passed out in his pick-up truck. He reminisces about the time “...he and Brewer duct-taped Ralph Morning Spider to the ceiling when he passed out drunk at a party... Those Oyate boys, a hundred years ago, they might have set Hubbard on fire, maybe staked him out on an anthill. But duct tape! That was funny.” The narrator himself seems to change depending on his surroundings. Comfortable among brothers and cousins in Mexico, he becomes curiously dark in “el norte” among anglos, and is still an outsider, on the reservation he is the “white guy.”

Urrea uses language effectively, comparing the garbage dump to an art masterpiece, “From a hillside, it looks like a Pollock canvas in full frenzy. And above, in swirling disks, rise the thousands of gulls. They look as if the white flecks on the ground have become animated and have begun to spiral out of the frame.” In this desperate setting, amid tragedies of death and constant strategy to avoid starvation, blooms the very normal and highly personal longing of adolescent love. Young Braulio, recently arrived from the dumps of Mexico City, falls madly in love with pregnant Perla. Happy that she already contains his family, knowing the father will not return from the other side of the border, he waits for the time to tell her of his love.

In the last tale, “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses,” the narrator returns to Pine Ridge to bury his wife, the sister of Don Her Many Horses. He sums up the curious displacement he feels there, “Night on the reservation is like night nowhere else. They say flying saucers visit the Sioux lands. Flying saucers and ghosts.…You can hear the grass sometimes like water. Like somebody whispering....It’s that this is not your land. This is their land. And you don’t belong. A thousand slaughtered warriors ride around your camp, and you think it’s the breeze. And they wonder why you’re there.” Richard Rodriguez, renowned essayist, says that we are writing the new stories of America: the new, mixed race, code-switching America. Urrea is writing these stories.
Dallas Morning News
These well-crafted stories take us on a ramble under six different kinds of sky, from the endless starry night of Mazatlán to the wide-open spaces of the Sioux Nation in South Dakota.

'Sky' covers a lot of ground in a slim volume

A slim volume of short stories can be a wonderful companion. Easy to carry around and dip into at will. A portable escape hatch you might say – an exit to another reality when the need arises.
Six Kinds of Sky offers a glimpse into far more than half a dozen realities. On the back cover the stories are described as "sad, funny, tragic, Mexican, Indian, gringo, passionate and fun." I would add "moving." Each story moved me in its own particular way.

The first is hilarious and moved me to laughter. It is the story of Mr. Mendoza, the Graffiti King of All Mexico, who has taken it upon himself to be the conscience of the small village of Rosario. The narrator is a young boy whose observations and amusing repartee with his cousin provide a down-to-earth commentary on life in the village and the transcendental nature of Mr. Mendoza's eventual departure.

Having shown that he can write humor (no easy task), Luis Alberto Urrea then takes us on a tour of more somber emotions. In the second story we accompany a man as he drives blindly across the country, reviewing (and reviling) the sudden collapse of his marriage. His wife, we learn, has 12-stepped out the door with her therapist, who "had stepped right into Mrs. Hubbard's pants and taken a very personal inventory, indeed."

Later in the book we are treated to a wistful backward glance at youth and love – the aching, impossible kind of puppy love that never seems to work. And when the fragile bubble inevitably bursts, a broken-hearted young man has no alternative but to steal the family car and roar out of town at dawn. Mr. Urrea generously seasons his stories with many interesting cultural references, writing about Cajuns and Indians and Americans as well as Mexicans. In this story, for example, he confirms that the Beatles' White Album was just as popular south of the Rio Grande as it ever was in the United States.

Then there is a bittersweet account of life among the scavengers who live in and off the Tijuana trash dumps. Closely observing a world that is as bleak as one could imagine, the author records the sometimes raw, sometimes poignant humanity of these people clinging to the final link of our society's food chain. In an exquisitely ironic scene, missionaries from San Diego distribute food to the scavengers. Juanita looks at a can of escargots with a picture of snails on the label. "My God," she says, "gringos eat bugs," and throws the can away.

These well-crafted stories take us on a ramble under six different kinds of sky, from the endless starry night of Mazatlán to the wide-open spaces of the Sioux Nation in South Dakota. Taken together they seem to trace an arc that, from a distance, looks like the path taken by a boy on his way to becoming a man. And getting to know himself and his world along the way.
Writer and translator Tony Beckwith lives in Austin.
City Talk Chicago
Urrea resolved in his teens to become a famous writer, but years would pass before he would hold his first "real" published work. After completing his undergraduate degree in 1977, Urrea went to work from 1978 to 1982 as a translator for a group of missionaries serving Tijuana's dump dwellers. His experiences there could never be neatly sewn up, yet he felt compelled to write about them. One day, as he was scribbling in his journal, a man emerged from the dump heap with what seemed like a mandate from God. "Write it all down," the man said, "because I was born in trash, I have lived my life in the trash, and I will die and be buried in the trash. And no one will ever know that I ever existed. You tell them that I was here."
A Sunday drive in a '49 Ford. Father and mother in the front seat, the boy in the back with his toy soldiers. All of them waging war. Mother hurls a grenade: "You f - - - - - - Mexican!" Father lobs one back: "You American b - - - - !" The boy takes the shrapnel like a man.

Now that little boy is a man. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, author Luis Alberto Urrea - winner of the 1999 American Book Award, member of the Latino Hall of Fame and writer in residence at the University of Illinois at Chicago - has lodged that shrapnel into nine critically acclaimed books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

In The Fever of Being, a collection of poems, he recalls the invisible border that stood between his parents: "They never touched. Not a hand, not a brush of thigh, not a fingernail clacked over their bowl of Fritos as they watched the nightly Vietnam report."

Borders of all kinds crisscross Urrea's life and career. His latest book, a short-story collection titled Six Kinds of Sky, was released in the spring to sterling reviews.

But Urrea is best known, perhaps, for his "border trilogy," a nonfiction series offering a painfully honest portrayal of the lives of Tijuana's orphans, garbage pickers and dump dwellers. The first, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, was a New York Times notable book. The second, By the Lake of Sleeping Children, exposes the gruesome realities of life in a Tijuana landfill, where the destitute pick through garbage for scraps of food, sleep in Maytag appliance boxes and breathe an overwhelming stench that might make Hell, by comparison, smell like the perfume department at Marshall Field's. The third book, Nobody's Son, documents Urrea's struggle to come to terms with his own conflicted identity.

"Here I'd been writing about the border," he says, "but I'd been studiously avoiding my own story."
Urrea was born in 1955 in a small, poorly equipped clinic above a drugstore in Tijuana. "The Mexicans wheeled my mother, belly-up, belly aimed at a fingernail moon, into a room upstairs five miles from the racetrack on the escape route east of Tijuana," he writes in The Fever of Being. "And there, set scalpels afire. They cut me out with smoking knives."

When he moved three years later to San Diego with his parents, he had tuberculosis and was banned from most homes in the neighborhood. Long after the disease had run its course, many would continue to ostracize Urrea for a different reason, one he could never be rid of even if he'd wanted to. He was different. He was Mexican. Or was he? Throughout his life and career, Urrea has been rejected by Mexicans because he has blond hair, blue eyes and American citizenship. He has been rejected by Americans and pigeonholed by well-meaning literary critics because his name "sounds funny." He has been called Latino, Chicano, Hispanic, gringo, white boy, wetback, greaser and pepper-belly.

His mother insisted he was 100 percent American and spoke only English to him. His father insisted he was 100 percent Mexican and demanded that he speak Spanish, which his mother couldn't comprehend.

"She never pronounced my name correctly once in my entire life," Urrea writes in By the Lake of Sleeping Children. "To her, I was Lewis. If, as some have suggested lately, I am some sort of a 'voice of the border,' it is because the border runs down the middle of me. I have a barbed-wire fence neatly bisecting my heart."

In the San Diego ghetto where Urrea grew up, boys were expected to fight, but he had no penchant for pugilism. To avoid getting his nose bloodied, he stayed indoors and buried it in books. He soon began typing his own poems and stories on an old typewriter.

"Unfortunately, my mom had heard that typewriters needed to be oiled and decided to help me out," he recalls. "She used cooking oil and destroyed it. But the first things I ever typed, she sewed together into a book. So I say I was first published in my kitchen at the age of 13."

Urrea resolved in his teens to become a famous writer, but years would pass before he would hold his first "real" published work. After completing his undergraduate degree in 1977, Urrea went to work from 1978 to 1982 as a translator for a group of missionaries serving Tijuana's dump dwellers. His experiences there could never be neatly sewn up, yet he felt compelled to write about them. One day, as he was scribbling in his journal, a man emerged from the dump heap with what seemed like a mandate from God. "Write it all down," the man said, "because I was born in trash, I have lived my life in the trash, and I will die and be buried in the trash. And no one will ever know that I ever existed. You tell them that I was here."

Although fiction and poetry were his forte, Urrea crossed yet another border from these familiar genres into first-person reportage to create his indelible and unprecedented account of life in the borderland. But once he had completed Across the Wire, nobody wanted to listen. Every major publisher refused the manuscript. "I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it, and it was rejected over and over and over again," he says. "I'd been told by one editor that nobody cares about starving Mexicans."

He was teaching to pay the bills, but Urrea couldn't rest until he had paid his debt to the dump dwellers. "I was like, 'Somebody's going to care. I'm going to make them care,' " he says.

It took nine years before somebody did. Anchor Books, a division of Doubleday, finally published Across the Wire in 1993. A decade later it seems that people can't get enough of Urrea, who lives in Naperville with his wife, Cindy, and their three children. His writers' workshops at UIC are filled to nearly twice their capacity.

National Public Radio has selected "Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses" from Six Kinds of Sky for inclusion in a future broadcast of Selected Shorts, featuring renowned actors' readings of new and classic short fiction. To mark the 10th anniversary of Across the Wire, Urrea returned to Tijuana in June with a production crew to tape a "Where Are They Now?" documentary, which he intends to offer to NPR. And as part of a six-figure, two-book deal with Little, Brown and Company, he is working on a nonfiction book titled The Devil's Highway, to be published in February 2004, and a novel titled The Hummingbird's Daughter, to follow in 2005. The former is a nonfiction account of a disastrous attempt by 28 Mexicans to sneak into the United States through the deadly southern Arizona desert. Fourteen of them died.

Urrea thought he had written his final chapter about the border. "I have three border-related books already," he says. "I'm seen as 'Mr. Border Boy.' I wanted to move on." But the region generates stories as rapidly as Tijuana accumulates trash.
The NewPages Book Reviews
Urrea’s style is an incredible weave of emotion in language, creating character and imagery so real, so thick with texture I just wanted to wrap myself up in each page.

This collection by Urrea is my first exposure to his writing, and you can bet I’ll be reading more from him. I am a lover of words, but in this encounter, I felt for the first time in love with the words I was reading. Urrea’s style is an incredible weave of emotion in language, creating character and imagery so real, so thick with texture I just wanted to wrap myself up in each page.

The six stories in this collection take the reader across the continent from rural villages of Mexico to South Dakota. The main characters’ lives deepen in complexity with each turn of the page. Their stories are heart wrenching in their fatalism, but they are not without resolve. The characters are so vivid, so human, their lives continue to replay in my memory long after I have closed the book.

In “Taped to the Sky” a man treks across the U.S. after having been left by his wife. Later, in a psychotropic state, he finds himself at the mercy of Native American, Don His Many Horses, to get him out of the dessert, as well as out of his rut of self-pity. “First Light” is the return visit of Henry to his rural Mexico family home, where forbidden love awaits and necessity triumphs over desire. Brilliantly chronicled, “A Day in the Life” follows a family of poverty-stricken trash pickers whose lives most of us would find unbearable without the additional hand of tragedy they are dealt. Still, while saddened and angered by the story, Urrea does not drop to merely culling pity, but rather deftly draws humility from readers who would consider themselves better off simply because of their material wealth.

Of all the stories, the first, “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush,” was the one that had the greatest impact on me. I have read it aloud to everyone and anyone who will listen. It is the story of an adolescent boy’s memory of the village crazy man, Mr. Mendoza and his graffiti exploits. But more than this, it is a story of rebellion, of creative expression, of art, of life, and of believing.

Most notable in this collection is Urrea’s ability to write women. I hear the line from the movie, “As Good as it Gets,” when the woman asks, “How do you write women so well?” I answer it for Urrea by saying, he respects them, and he loves them. He expresses a clear and honest understanding in his writing of the thoughts and feelings of one gender for the other, as well each for their own.

As an added bonus, Urrea has provided an afterword, “Amazing Grace: Story and Writer,” in which he shares his thoughts and process on writing, as well as personal literary history and notes of interest on several of his stories.
Publisher's Weekly for Booksellers
Lipmagazine writes: "To say that Luis Alberto Urrea's words dazzle is to commit a grave understatement. In Six Kinds of Sky, they shimmer, laugh and lilt their way across a great poetic expanse.... This is one of the finest collections of short fiction likely to emerge this year."
Reviews in the News: A Trio of Multicultural Short Story Collections

American Book Award nonfiction winner Luis Urrea has written a slim volume of short stories that are eloquent, funny, passionate, tragic, Mexican, Indian, gringo and moving.

Lipmagazine writes: "To say that Luis Alberto Urrea's words dazzle is to commit a grave understatement. In Six Kinds of Sky, they shimmer, laugh and lilt their way across a great poetic expanse.... This is one of the finest collections of short fiction likely to emerge this year."

Urrea writes with wit and ingenuity as he richly draws from his mixed ethnicity--his mother was Anglo, his father Mexican.

Tony Beckwith writing in the Dallas Morning News, describes the story A Day in the Life: "...there is a bittersweet account of life among the scavengers who live in and off the Tijuana trash dumps. Closely observing a world that is as bleak as one could imagine, the author records the sometimes raw, sometimes poignant humanity of these people clinging to the final link of our society's food chain. In an exquisitely ironic scene, missionaries from San Diego distribute food to the scavengers. Juanita looks at a can of escargots with a picture of snails on the label. 'My God,' she says, 'gringos eat bugs,' and throws the can away."

In the story Taped to the Sky, a man, whose wife has suddenly left him for her 12-step therapist, takes to the road, aimlessly driving hundreds of miles. When his car breaks down in the middle of Wyoming, a Native American man helps him discover the real reason for his journey.

In Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses, a man struggles painfully after the Sioux woman he marries succumbs to alcoholism; while Father Returns From the Mountain is an eloquent story of a man coming to grips with his father's death in an auto accident.

"These well-crafted stories take us on a ramble under six different kinds of sky, from the endless starry night of Mazatlan to the wide-open spaces of the Sioux Nation in South Dakota. Taken together they seem to trace an arc that, from a distance, looks like the path taken by
a boy on his way to becoming a man. And getting to know himself and his world along the way," concludes Beckwith.

Raves the San Francisco Chronicle: "Short, direct sentences and pitch-perfect dialogue build into original studies of passion, restlessness or mischief, one detail at a time."
San Diego Union Tribune
An award-winning poet, fiction writer and essayist, Urrea should be required reading for anyone living in the Southwest.
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 
San Francisco Chronicle
Short, direct sentences and pitch-perfect dialogue build into original studies of passion, restlessness or mischief, one detail at a time.
The six stories in Urrea’s new collection vary widely—in length, mood, and setting, just for starters—but his prose is singular and unmistakable. Short, direct sentences and pitch-perfect dialogue build into original studies of passion or restlessness or mischief, one detail at a time.
The two long central stories, “First Love” and “A Day in the Life,” dwarf the others in both breadth and depth. “First Love” charts a young doomed affair and a bittersweet exodus north from Mexico. “A Day in the Life” uses short, timelined cuts to depict the hard-scrabble lives and desperate dreams of a large rural family.

The other stories offer brief but rich portraits and/or slices of life: a memory of a cheeky small-town eccentric, a poignant tribute to a dead father, the setbacks of a high-strung husband in hilarious angst over marital woes, a tense reunion between two brothers-in-law on the occasion of a mortal illness.

Urrea’s writing is quick and easy, choice bits resonating in the readers’ consciousness even as he speeds ahead. Accessibility is not always considered a literary asset, unfortunately. But Urrea combines economy and clarity with precise, vivid details and images, in most cases a single apt one instead of the scattershot series favored by most “serious” contemporary authors.
These are stories that improve considerably in a second (or third), slower reading.
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.
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.”
The Review of Contemporary Fiction
In “Amazing Grace: Story and Writer,” which follows the six stories in this collection, Urrea gives a good summary of its development: “The book is some kind of downward spiral. It starts out all full of jokes and ends in fighting and poverty and death. It reflects an early fascination with escape, and deals with returning, then staying put then dealing with it, whatever it is.” Comic talent evidences itself throughout, even in the longest story, the darker “A Day in the Life,” which follows the experiences of an extended family of garbage pickers in increments of the day, through love, death, suffering, and a fire that destroys everything but love and an indomitable (if romanticized) will to endure. The first story, about the Rosario graffiti artist Mendoza, offers sardonic humor and moves into the realm of “magical realism.”

Class struggle, official corruption, the remote distance of the USA and its concerns, perhaps stereotypical Mexican themes, are brought to life by the characters that populate this fiction and the gentle humor with which most of them are etched. The afterword suggests the ties between the fiction and Urrea’s experience, though there doesn’t seem to be such connection with “Taped to the Sky,” in which a cuckold, Hubbard, finds himself next to his wife’s dead car, tripping, meeting Don Her Many Horses; the confused stereotypes— white red, the shooting of the car, the image of Hubbard duct-taped to the ceiling, above a group of dancing warriors— are reductive and funny. The concluding stories deal with death: “Father Returns from the Mountain,” a version of Urrea’s father’s death and its effect, is strikingly well done. I should hope that Urrea will turn his keen eye on the large Mexican community in Chicago and its suburbs (he teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago), individualizing their complex situations.
Southwest Book Views
Luis Alberto Urrea! What a writer. Read this collection of stories and you want to put your fingers to your lips and kiss them the way gourmets do after eating the perfect meal. The stories in this glorious collection are splendid.
Luis Alberto Urrea! What a writer. Read this collection of stories and you want to put your fingers to your lips and kiss them the way gourmets do after eating the perfect meal. The stories in this glorious collection are splendid. There aren’t enough words of praise for it. His language is simple but not simplistic. Neither are his characters mere ciphers or symbols. Urrea shapes believable people living out the complications of their lives with spirit and humor.

In “First Light,” two characters zigzag through their little Mexican village with loudspeakers tied to their car, drumming up business for their uncle’s new movie house. Sewn into the middle of this wonderfully funny episode is this little exchange:
“My life in advertising,” I said.
“Do they do this in California?” he asked.
“You’d get arrested for disturbing the peace.”
He thought for a moment, and said, “We don’t have any peace.”
Urrea is a Michelangelo with a typewriter. His originality and wit bring light to even the most pedestrian events. In “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush,” a monumental thunderstorm shakes the town. Most of us would be charging up a dozen adjectives to show off our descriptive skills. In Urrea’s hands we understand the enormity of the storm because, “People near the river swore their chickens laid square eggs.” Again, in “First Light,” “A burro zipped by my window like a tatter of fog.”

“First Light” is a superb tale about Henry, a university student in California, who returns to Mexico’s supposedly for the Christmas holidays. In fact, it’s really to see his cousin Christina, when he loves truly, madly, deeply. Henry is a virgin, saving himself for the sacred moment he can take Christina and make her his. Though Henry is in his 20s, this is still a coming-of-age tale of delicious subtlety. And, if you’re not laughing yourself breathless at that ride through town advertising the new movie house, you’re made of chorizo.

As if this weren’t enough, Urrea ends the book with “An Afterword” that will crumble you to tears then straighten you up in awe at the poetic power and beauty of his mind and heart. Cinco Puntos Press should be given some kind of literary Olympic gold medal for its remarkable contribution to Hispanic literature. That they’ve chosen Luis Alberto Urrea as one of their authors just proves what a sure eye they have for first-class writers.

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