'Brownsville' residents star in debut story collection

To outsiders, it seems that not much goes on in Brownsville, Texas.

Located at the southernmost tip of the state, the city is a mere stopover for tourists on their way to Mexico or South Padre Island. The Border Patrol is one of its largest employers, and there are few bookstores.

But in Oscar Casares' debut book, "Brownsville," there is plenty in a town where a third of the population lives in poverty, and where prosperity is always just around the corner.

The nine stories in "Brownsville" give this hidden city something visitors rarely see -- life. Through Casares' crafty humor and enticing dialogue, readers travel down streets where "people chained their barbecue pits to trees" and meet people who constantly prepare for the next hurricane.

Among the characters are Marcelo Torres, an inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who is determined to quiet a neighbor's barking dog; George, 30-ish, who is conned by a cousin into buying cemetery plots for himself and his wife; and Yolanda, a beautiful cosmetics seller whose jealous husband won't let her drive to work.

In "Chango," we meet an unemployed 31-year-old who becomes so involved with a monkey's head found in his parents' yard that he pretends it's a lost friend. He dreams they hang out together as fellow monkeys "so he wouldn't have to go to school, or work, or file for unemployment."

A former advertising copywriter and graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Casares captures the characters' fast-moving internal battles in a slow-moving city.

Perhaps this is why the subject of race is absent. Chicano-white in relationships in "Brownsville" is merely a footnote and not a source of contention.

Instead, conflicts rest with Mexican-American characters themselves, who are the mainstream in a town where 90 percent of the population is of Mexican descent. The border speaks through them, from the father and son with similar rattail haircuts to the salesman who calls everyone "primo" ("cousin") even if he's Chinese.

If "Brownsville" lacks anything it is details about the town itself. Besides an occasional trip to Lincoln Park or a shadow of the International Bridge, the stories rarely show the city's diverse character.

That small blemish aside, "Brownsville" is a top-notch collection by a promising new writer.

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