Oscar Casares

"Brownsville"

(Reviewed by April Chase MAY 28, 2003)

Brownsville: Stories by Oscar Casares

This collection of short stories, all set in the author's hometown of Brownsville, Texas, is a highly promising debut, full of well-developed and believable characters. The nine stories in the book memorialize the atmosphere and quirky folks of South Texas, depicting border language, summer heat, and the unique problems of this frontier area like only an insider could.

Read excerptFrom the wry coming-of-age story "Mr. Z," which tells how a boy's first job can propel him down the road to independent thinking, to "Mrs. Perez," which shows an elderly woman's discovery of self-confidence, fun and friendship through, of all things, bowling, these tales feature a wide range of protagonists and themes. Although the lifestyle they detail is humble - they are primarily about the working-class minority community - they are told with humor and grace.

Even "Chango," the story of Bony, an alcoholic thirty-something who lives with his parents and one day befriends a monkey head that he finds in the yard, comes off as witty and clever rather than gruesome and bizarre. "How many guys could say they'd found a monkey's head in their front yard? He'd probably never find anything like this again. He was sure that if Chango were a guy they'd be camaradas…He and Chango would be friends until they were viejitos, all wrinkled and hunched over and walking from tree to tree because they were too old to be swinging."

The world Casares describes takes on an odd, dreamy aspect: "When he opened his eyes, he gazed out toward the horizon, farther than he had ever imagined he could. He looked across the river, past the nightclub lights on Obregon, past the shoeshine stands in Plaza Hidalgo, past the bus station where he caught his long ride home, past all the little towns and ranchitos on the way to Ciudad Victoria, past the Sierra Madre and the endless shrines for people who had died along the road, and even farther, past the loneliness of his little room next to the tire shop, past the reality that he would work the rest of his life and still die poor, and finally, past the years of sorrow he had spent remembering his little girl, past all this, until he clearly saw his wife and then his daughter Sara, who was now a grown woman." How beautifully that line, from "Domingo," sums up all the flavor of the border, the yearning of a Mexican immigrant for home, the pain of poverty and loss - yet with so much room for the reader to imagine the exact action. What did he really see? What does this sublime language that hides as much as it reveals really mean?

The short biography in the front of the book notes that Casares has been the recipient of several distinguished awards; I can see why. It also mentions that he is working on his first novel. If that novel has the same skill, it will be a must-read, just as is this fine collection.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 20 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Brownsville at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Oscar CasaresOscar Casares was born in Brownsville, Texas, in 1964 where he lived for his first twenty years. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in advertising from The University of Texas at Austin in 1987. For the next ten years, he traveled across the country writing and producing national advertising campaigns. But the farther he moved away from Brownsville, the more he tried to reconnect with his home. He quit his job in 1996, after writing two short stories, and enrolled in writing programs at the community college in Austin. In 1997 he met Dagoberto Gilb who helped him by organizing an informal writing course in his home.

In 1998, “Yolanda” became Oscar’s first published story when it was featured in The Threepenny Review. “Jerry Fuentes” was published a month later in Northwest Review. Since then, his fiction has also appeared in the Colorado Review and The Iowa Review. In 1999, Oscar was offered fellowships by the creative writing programs at Columbia, Cornell, Houston, Iowa, and Texas. He accepted the fellowship at Iowa Writers’ Workshop and spent the next two years writing a series of short stories based on his life in Brownsville. He received an MFA degree from the University of Iowa in 2001.

In May 2002, the Texas Institute of Letters awarded Oscar with a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, which includes a six-month residence at a 264-acre ranch just outside of Austin. That same year, the Copernicus Society of America presented him with James Michener Award, which provides financial support to a writer completing a promising work of fiction. This past January, BOOK Magazine designated Oscar Casares as one of “Ten Writers to Watch in 2003.”

After being away for eighteen years, he has come back to live in his hometown.

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