Lorraine M. Lopez lives
in Nashville, Tennessee, where she teaches at Vanderbilt University.
Her awards include the Independent Publisher Book Award for
Multicultural Fiction, the Paterson Prize for Fiction, the
International Latino Book Award for Short Stories, and the inaugural
Miguel Marmol Prize for Fiction. She has written a book for young
adults, Call Me Henri and her
latest novel is The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters, which was a Los
Compadres/ Borders selection.
with Lorraine M. Lopez
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"he wonders if homicide hasn't gotten something of a bad rap. Clearly
murdering a person betrays a limitation of options, if not lack of
imagination. It should always
a last resort. But hadn't Micki reached this stage, even gone well
beyond it? Divorce could never keep her safe. The memory of her
broken face, glimpsed through the glass partition in the prison
visiting area, still makes Leo wince, and he wonders if he has other
fundamental convictions that are this shakeable...
Reviewed by A J Kirby
Thank goodness for Lorraine M.
Lopez's serendipitous decision to re-title her collection. According
to interviews, the author was set on the title Human Services until
a friend suggested otherwise, urging her to go with the far more
memorable Homicide Survivors Picnic. The new title becomes the
thread which binds the ten stories together; the light which
illuminates the key themes within the collection, and ultimately,
enriches our reading of them.
At first, the title seems vaguely
oxymoronic; the words "homicide" and "picnic" rarely inhabit the same
world. But it is the word "survivor" which is key. For these are
stories about characters who have suffered through terrible
hardships, crimes, disillusionment, dispossession and death. The
characters, usually women and children, are the innocent collateral
damage from acts of violence, cruelty and desperation. And yet,
despite it all, the characters here are surviving.
These are post-apocalyptic, post-traumatic "war" stories set in a
real, recognisable America, but one whose psycho-geography has
changed dramatically for them. The narrative thrust of the stories
concern their attempts to navigate themselves through the aftermath
of violence - a drab, grey, over-boiled, faded wallpaper, unflushed
toilet of a landscape - in order to overcome whatever shocking events
they have suffered. It is about keeping going, about the
of the human spirit, no matter how much pressure is placed on it. It
is a collection which examines, despairs at, but ultimately
celebrates life. Despite the despair and the hopelessness within
these pages, there is also a great warmth, a great joy in the fact of
Lopez is clearly an adept writer.
Her prose is highly polished, economically written and yet each of
the tales are rich with feeling. The world which she guides her
readers through might be desolate at times, but it is never
one-dimensional, always well-observed. It is a highly complex, yet
starkly simple road-map for good short story writing which all
aspiring writers should read.
title story, the excellent Homicide
Survivors Picnic, actually
uses this neat road-map metaphor. The narrator, Ted, accompanies his
mother and sister to the eponymous picnic. Along the way, Ted's
mother gets lost and he has to read the road-maps for her in order to
try to get them back on track. "How many minutes, how many hours,
how many days, even years if you added it all up, had they spent
roaming the San Fernando Valley and now Northeast Georgia, lost as a
trio of lunatics who"d wandered from the asylum to find themselves
inexplicably rattling around in a used Toyota Corolla?" But the
lost/found analogy is about more than that, it is about the fact that
Ted is the one they all rely on to lead them through the
psycho-geography of this bleak landscape after his sister's boyfriend
has been murdered in a gang-war.
Ted does not want the role of
guide and yet he finds that people are drawn to him, looking to him
as somebody they can follow.
"He had no idea why they were drawn to
him. His mother said it was his smile, an unfortunate habit he had of
grinning warmly when he was most distressed and confused."
At the picnic, Ted is
particularly distressed and confused, and hence, ironically, becomes
the star attraction, despite the fact he never even met his sister's
boyfriend. The picnic is full of destroyed, hollowed people who
simply cannot let go of the past. He feels himself being dragged down
by them, despite the fact they all let off symbolic balloons into the
sky. He longs to make a real escape from this turgid new reality
these homicide "survivors" inhabit, feeling them stifling him. "He
imagined a delicious silence unfurling like a beach blanket on
sun-warmed sand." He dreams of California and a new life, of no
longer being trapped in by mental boundaries. And in the end, the
story returns to the road, the highway, and his sister's mad dash
across it. We have reached the cross-roads in Ted's life as he must
decide whether to run across after her, or whether he can let go.
Fittingly, Lopez leaves the conclusion hanging.
survival instinct is celebrated in the two interlinked stories which
bookend the collection, The
Like many of the other stories in the collection, these two stories
feature a protagonist (Lydia) who is suddenly thrust into the
difficult situation of looking after somebody else's children after
some terrible event in which they have become collateral damage. In
this case, Lydia is forced to look after her niece Roxanne, after her
drug-addicted mother has been imprisoned.
Lydia has taken Roxanne away for a weekend in Paducah, a weekend in
which they awkwardly visit cafes, museums and fairs and attempt to
try to learn parenting "on the job." She desperately tries to bond
with the girl:
"Lydia compares this trip to Paducah to a form of
shock therapy – the unbearable midday heat sharply contrasted with
the icy green pool, and now, here at the fair, she feels as though
she and Roxanne are like body lice, competing with hundreds of others
for breathable air, deep in a foul, sweat-drenched arm-pit, a
everyone over twelve in Paducah seems to have a cigarette dangling
from his or her lips."
between the two of them is captured with no little humour by Lopez
here. At one point she swings into full on Homer Simpson mode:
"Roxanne drenches Lydia with a full-body splash that spins her off
balance in surprise. She slips from the aluminium ladder and falls
deep into the water before clawing and kicking her way to the
surface, spluttering: "Why, you little
herself is in a constant state of post-traumatic flux. She switches
from full-on tantrums to desperate attempts to win Lydia's favour by
giving her presents. This is clearly learned behaviour, after
spending so much time with her drug addled mother and her mood
swings, the never quite knowing where you stand. Roxanne offers up
colourful pebbles, rocks and even, at one point, attempts to bribe
Lydia with a dead bird, "a rigor-hardened mess of pale down,
leathery claws, and beak".
Lopez writes children particularly
effectively, she has their language down pat, from their sulky "nah-uhs" to their "but I"m thirsty now(s)"
and in Roxanne we have as fully formed a character as in Lydia.
of the title refers to an exhibit in the museum which they visit; a
working model of the river flooding the town of Paducah in 1937. The
flood is both a real, historic natural disaster and also a metaphor
both for the apocalyptic events which have washed over Roxanne in her
Later, in The
mother is released from prison. Lydia takes a cross-state trip to
return Roxanne to her birth mother, but on the way, it becomes clear
that Lydia has now become the solid ground for the girl. Rather than "muddling through" as she did in The
has now become the place to tether the life-raft, the place in which
Roxanne can finally feel safe. And in the heartbreaking final line,
Roxanne realises this too: "Auntie, when are you going to pick me up?
I want to come home."
This is a powerful,
Lopez proves herself to be an enthralling
spinner of tales, and has a wonderful way of using words. More than a
simple picnic, this is a literary feast and proof, if any were
needed, that the short story form is not only surviving, but living a
rich, colourful, humorous, moving life.
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