I first discovered Dagoberto Gilb’s work while taking an undergrad Chicano/a literature course at Texas State University and immediately fell in love it, so I was upset to learn that he’d had a stroke in 2009. Although Gilb permanently lost some vision in both eyes, he recovered enough use of one hand to return to writing about six months after his stroke. Before the End, After the Beginning is a collection of ten short stories. A couple of the stories in the book have appeared in other places–I read “Uncle Rock” over a year ago in The New Yorker–but most of this book is comprised of new material. Though not much has changed in terms of his style–Gilb is a gifted storyteller whose protagonists are usually male–this collection does seem a lot more introspective compared to his other works that I’ve read.
If the elephant in the room is his stroke, Gilb acknowledges it head on in the first short story, “please, thank you”. The main character, Mr. Sanchez, has suffered a stroke. Once a strong man, Mr. Sanchez is knocked down by his health. The reader sees him through the early days of disorientation and follows along as he makes small victories in his recovery over the next few months. The story is at turns humorous and touching. It is also typed by Mr. Sanchez, who only has limited movement in one hand; as such, there are no capital letters in the story because Mr. Sanchez can’t reach the shift key. It’s a beautiful story, and one of my favorites.
Another favorite was “Uncle Rock,” about a young boy and his single mother. No matter who his mother dates, Erick refuses to warm up to them. It’s no different when she begins dating Roque; Erick can see that Roque adores his mother, but no matter how much Roque tries to engage with Erick over, Erick remains indifferent. Knowing that Erick loves baseball, Roque takes them to see a game at Dodgers stadium. Still, Erick tries to look nonchalant. But then something happens at the game, and Erick can keep his composure no more. The end left me smiling.
The final story, “Hacia Teotitlán,” is another one that stayed with me. As young children, the narrator and his siblings visited Coyoacán, Mexico on vacation; as adults, they always talked about going back but never did. Now an old man at the end of his life, his brother and sister dead, Ramiro returns to Mexico. He spends his days reflecting on life, walking around town and talking to local vendors. It’s a quiet story, largely plotless, but one that I found myself drifting off to reflect on more than the other stories.
Whether the characters in these stories are exploring politics or racism, the bounds of friendship or the roots of one’s culture, all of them are experiencing a profound period of transition in their lives. There is a distinctly Southwestern feel to the stories, and though not all of them are set along the U.S.-Mexico border, the concept of navigating borders–be they physical or figurative–presents a recurring theme. The situations in many of these stories are not easy, and some of the protagonists are downright self-contradictory, but Gilb has written them with compassion and grace. This is a collection that deserves conversation.
Before the End, After the Beginning was released by Grove Press on November 1, 2011.