March 9, 2010

In the 10-story collection Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories, (BkMk Press) by Lorraine M. Lopez, adult characters are terrorized by tantrum-prone, smarty-pants children, including one infant who parrots the foul-mouthed dialog of violent TV shows. Or they deal with grown children who’ve been locked up for crimes of passion and other misdeeds. Even the pets—cats suffering from bulimia or untamed surliness—are a handful, bringing on household drama that Lopez juggles between heartbreak and I-don’t-know-if-I-really-should-be-laughing hilarity.

A finalist for the 2010 PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction—nominated alongside books by Sherman Alexie, Colson Whitehead, Lorrie Moore and Barbara Kingsolver—Homicide Survivors Picnic is set largely in the Deep South a hot, humid region where the air has the “rancid tang of mayonnaise left too long in the sun” and features characters who repeatedly take on other people’s troubles and navigate tough, almost impossible circumstances.

In the first story, “The Flood,” Lydia, who’s in her late 30s, is looking after 4-year-old Roxanne. When someone mistakes them for mother and daughter, the little one announces, dimples showing: “She’s not my momma…My momma got put in jail.” Later, with a bottle of gin and a family-sized bag of Cheetos, Lydia slumps in a darkened hotel room, wondering how to care for Roxanne, the child of her incarcerated, drug-addicted cousin. She doesn’t even know whether she wants the responsibility, considering “how complicated it is to handle a child…how wearing and limiting it is, how hobbling, and when not so tormenting, how stultifying and mundane…and she’s never wanted a child.”
 
Lopez, whose last novel was The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters, has received numerous honors for her bold, darkly amusing fiction, including the International Latino Book Award and the inaugural Miguel Mármol Prize, given by Curbstone Press, for her debut collection, Soy La Avon Lady and Other Stories.
 
“I was 8 years old when I knew I wanted to be a writer,” Lopez recalled, speaking by phone from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. She’d made up her young mind to give up everything else, because, she said, writing is the one artistic practice “where I actually lose track of time.”
 
She’s never regretted that early decision, even though Avon Lady wasn’t published until she was in her mid-40s. “I was a grandmother when that book came out,” she said with a laugh.
 
Lopez, now 53 and a professor at Vanderbilt University, maintains a youthful optimism about her writing, and she’s ready for the current semester of Latino literature seminars and fiction workshops to be over so that she can get back to her writing desk.
 
She’s taking the next year off to work on her second young adult novel and a novel-in-stories. “I’ve been working all of my life—since I was 16,” Lopez said. Taking time off from teaching, as she did four years ago to write Homicide Survivors Picnic, allows her the quiet freedom she needs.
 
Her characters, though, don’t get off so easily.

Leo, an out-of-work actor, becomes a harassed, stay-at-home dad when he begins tending the two grandchildren of the much older girlfriend he’s moved in with. Even the pet cat, Sugar Boots, an orange tabby with white paws whose name serves as the story title, demands extra attention when it starts vomiting once a day, sometimes twice, from all the nervous excitement of having the grandkids running around.
 
And in “The Threat of Peace,” a cop comes knocking to arrest Guadalupe for writing hot checks at a liquor store. Guadalupe, however, is the type of woman who becomes exhilarated by the disasters of her messy life. According to her mild-mannered, live-in boyfriend, Stewart, who works as a mediation counselor, “Guadalupe doesn’t just embrace conflict; she seems to want to make out with it.”
 
In the final narrative, “The Landscape,” a bookend to the first story, Lydia abandons a grim-looking oil painting at a highway rest stop. She feels liberated, like she’s moving on, as if she’d dropped life’s bundle of disappointment on the side of the road—until a couple of church-going do-gooders catch up to her at the next gas station and hand over the painting they thought she’d left behind on accident.  
 
Lopez said her characters are post-idealists, and she wanted her stories to be more than sad, more than funny. “I hope they’re more than one thing,” she said, still searching for a single word that would somehow sum up the human complexity contained in them.



Erasmo Guerra is a writer living in New York City.

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