After being blown away last year by Manuel Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark, I knew I’d be seeking him out again shortly. Then Tucson, AZ decided to shut down its Mexican American studies program and ban a bunch of books, and lo and behold, Muñoz’s first two books (both short story collections) were on that list.
The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue is Muñoz’s second book. It features ten loosely interconnected stories about Mexican Americans living in a neighborhood in central California. Most of the stories involve gay Mexican American men carrying their own private burdens, but the bigger theme here always comes back to family. As homosexuality is often at odds with traditional Mexican Catholic beliefs, Muñoz’s stories often explore the subtleties of familial relationships and love.
The book opens with the devastating “Lindo y Querido,” which begins with two teenagers who are in a motorcycle accident; one of the boys dies instantly, while the other lingers in fading health. The mother of the surviving boy futilely tends to him as best she can, but fully expects him to die soon. Things happen at the end of his life and in the days that immediately follow that will forever leave her guilt-ridden. Meanwhile, we learn a little bit about the other boy who died; he was a triplet, and one of his surviving brothers gets his own poignant short story (“Señor X”) later in the book. These were probably my two favorite stories in the collection.
As a whole, the book is beautifully written. One of the things I love about Muñoz is that he takes his time to develop his characters, and his tone, language, and structure are almost more important than the plot. This is apparent in all of the stories, but especially so in “Bring Brang Brung,” about a gay man who has moved back home following his partner’s death. He brings with him their young son (who biologically comes from the dead partner). The man is a reluctant father, but he always tries to do his best for his son. The writing is positively stunning.
The book closes with the title story, about a young man named Emilio who is permanently injured in an accident at work and will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He must now depend on his aging father for everything from bathing to using the restroom; he is humiliated, depressed, and refuses to leave the house. In an act of desperation, the father urges his son to see a curandera (faith healer) in hopes of a cure. Although Emilio doesn’t even believe in curanderas and brushes them off as the nonsense of older generations, the story ends up becoming one about faith.
It isn’t too often that one comes across such a solid short story collection — even in a great collection, there’s likely to be a couple of stories that don’t quite stand up to the rest. I can’t really say that about The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. Sure, I had my favorites and least favorites, but all of the stories were just so beautifully written that’s it is impossible not to find something good to say about each. I think it’s safe to say that Muñoz has officially become one of those authors whose future works I’ll pick up without question.
The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue was released in May 2007 by Algonquin Books.