A Story Cycle

By George Szanto

Harper & Row. 229 pp. $18.95

This book of short stories set in Mexico violates a couple of rules right from the git-go. First, the book's narrator assumes the voice of an author writing a book. "It was all becoming, improbably, a story I might want to write one day," he tells us when confronted with a supernatural phenomenon. Writing fiction about writing fiction isn't the worst sin, but with so much rich material swirling around the narrator, the reader deserves a less self-conscious literary device.

Second, he occasionally steps out of his role to talk to his audience. George Burns can pull it off, George Szanto has trouble: "One of the advantages of narrative, I've now discovered, is its selectivity," the narrator tells the reader a quarter way through "The Underside of Stones." "I send pictures to your mind with words, letting you imagine even more than I tell you. But I can also choose -- I hide pieces of information. And, excuse me, this is what I've been doing, thereby creating an absence of a sort in the story so far."

A few pages later an American friend admonishes him, "Stop thinking like a writer." Good advice, and had Szanto taken it, a much stronger book would have developed. Yet, beyond its self-conscious posturing, "The Underside of Stones" has immensely likable vignettes. Jorge, a gringo criminologist from Boston who is spending a year in Michoacuaro writing while recovering from his wife's death from cancer, leads us through the town, its twisting nuances and its hardened personalities. Each story highlights a different episode, neighbor or state of mind. He gracefully slides into the supernatural -- a statue occupied by a ghost who fires from the antiquated gun in his permanently outstretched arm, a two-headed woman, a recently deceased street-sweeper who returns from the dead -- and makes it part of the Michoacan terrain.

Szanto, an Irish-born author who divides his time between Mexico and Montreal, excels with his character portraits. Moises de Jesus Gutierrez Humberto, the dead street-sweeper who allows Jorge to see and speak with him, nudges him on with hints and parables. Ruben, the philosopher/police chief/landlord, warms up to Jorge, shares an occasional drink and confides in him. So do the diners at a tableful of Mexico City intelligentsia during Jorge's rare trip to the capital. "All Mexicans send their children to camp in Canada," one woman states. The conversation shifts to a hallucinogenic cult in the hills around Oaxaca. "We are a nation of many parts," a chilango explains. "We have witches, computers, the Church -- every kind of natural disaster. This is a source of pride. Only for us to remain a unified nation, we must blend all our catastrophes. Computers must be married to mushrooms and economists shall have to lie down with priests. Or else we're doomed."

Szanto's best-drawn character is Alejandro Cruz Ocampo, known as Ali Cran, a sorcerer, shaman, mighty lover and man of subtle authority who is described by one of his wives as having five extra senses: retaining, tracing, patterning, thrusting and predicting. (It is said Ali Cran has these powers because as a youth he once bit the head off a scorpion crawling up his chin and swallowed it.) The only problem these personalities share is that they all talk as if a New Yorker editor had tidied up their grammar and made them speak in nicely constructed, complete sentences.

Over the course of his year in Mexico, Jorge grows more and more relaxed in his setting, and while he is not clutched to Michoacuaro's bosom, he is, by the end, an acknowledged part of the town. His entrance, acceptance, penetration, and ultimate absorption into the town's rhythm are barely perceptible but constant, and very nicely handled. Pepe, a neighbor who runs the local cable television outlet, compliments him by calling him gringo "because I know in truth you're nearly a Mexican, a Mexican who didn't grow up here but a Mexican in the soul who was born in the wrong place." At the start Jorge's rudimentary Spanish kept him from "saying two-thirds of what I'd like to share and from understanding half of what I want to hear -- the subtleties, the innuendoes and quadruple meanings everyone explodes into laughter over." Toward the end he says, "I've come to feel comfortable here, a minor adjunct to the landscape yet not wholly out of place. I live my own way, at ease, my earlier life discarded."

"What kind of a metaphor was I letting myself in for?" Jorge asks himself after speaking with the dead street-sweeper the first time. He let himself in for too many. It's a danger gringos writing about Mexico often succumb to. There are times when we must remind ourselves, sometimes a tortilla is just a tortilla.

The reviewer is the author of "On the Border" and is currently editing an anthology of literature about the U.S.-Mexico frontier.