Love Among the Golden Cockroaches
By Louise Titchener
Sunday, September 1 1996
Warning: I prefer stories with sympathetic or, at least, engaging protagonists. I regard a clear conflict with a satisfying resolution at the story's end as important plot elements. I subscribe to the "show-don't-tell" theory of storytelling and love to watch characters come to life on a page by means of action and dialogue. Unfortunately for me and for readers who share my literary tastes, Ana Castillo's short story collection, Loverboys, rarely satisfies these desires.
Love is the central theme in Castillo's short stories. She presents love in its many guises -- lustful, yearning, romantic, parental, sanctioned and illicit. But love disappointed and disillusioned is the star of her show.
The first story in Castillo's collection is a soliloquy, an artfully self-conscious mode she favors. The narrator, a Hispanic owner of a lesbian bookstore, languishes in a bar bemoaning the desertion of her young male lover. She theorizes that he left her because "his brothers started ragging him about running around with a lesbian . . . who plays soccer and who knows how to do her own tune-ups and oil change." Since the only realized character in this claustrophobic narrative is the narrator herself, some readers risk feeling trapped with a personality they'd prefer to know less intimately.
Yet on the one occasion when Castillo allows herself to dramatize a cast of characters, she demonstrates real skill. In the book's final story, "La Miss Rose," Castillo introduces us to a memorable lesbian voodoo priestess. Miss Rose whisks a pair of young Hispanic women off to Chicago, where she charms them (and the reader) with her spells, snakes, ceremonies, humor and intriguing view of life.
"La Miss Rose," like so many other stories in Loverboys, is weak on plot and doesn't conclude with anything resembling a satisfying resolution of the various cloudy issues raised in the narrative. But since Castillo dramatizes her characters in this story so effectively, readers will keep turning pages.
Alas, this is not the case with many of her other tales. "Who Was Juana Gallo?," the second story in the collection, is a dreary lecture extolling the virtues of a Mexican heroine. The narrator's disembodied voice achieves some color only when he mentions at the conclusion of his lecture that he was in love with Juana Gallo.
"If Not for the Blessing of a Son" is another less than riveting exercise in telling instead of showing. In this distanced, third-person omniscient account of a dysfunctional Hispanic-American family the narrator hints at incest. But since none of the characters in the story is developed in such a way as to pique our interest and the incest issue is not resolved or even raised until the story's end, the story reads like a shapeless third-hand account from an untrustworthy gossip.
"Christmas Story of the Golden Cockroach" does have an engaging plot element. In an entrepreneurial effort unlikely to mollify the anti-immigration faction in California, Paco and Rosa import their cockroach collection to the United States in hopes of breeding golden cockroaches. "I've been aware of the belligerence of the roaches in Paco and Rosa's house and how they don't worry a bit over the possibility of disgusting company," the narrator muses. Unfortunately, for every golden cockroach the Mexicans produce, many thousands of ordinary ones are spawned. "The tenants in the rest of the building are outraged over the recent infestation. They are sending bomb threats to the realty office that manages the building for the landlord."
In "Conversations with an Absent Lover on a Beachless Afternoon," Castillo displays the skill that her self-conscious narrative technique demands. In this soliloquy she advises her runaway lover, "We believe we are moving in a straight line when in fact we travel in spirals all our lives -- so wide, at first, that for a long time we've thought we were heading forward. But after years, decades perhaps, the spirals have begun to narrow, finally becoming ringlets of memory.
"That is when you will come back -- a man in a ringlet of fire."
This collection, like most, is a mixture of disappointments, revelations and nice surprises. If its goal is to highlight the quirky, painful and unpredictable nature of love, it succeeds. But we already knew that love was quirky, painful and unpredictable.
Louise Titchener is the author, most recently, of a novel, "Deja Vu."
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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