The Real and Surreal in “The Book of Wanderers”

Reyes Ramirez’s first story collection,The Book Of Wanderers, brings to mind the work of others who write both poetry and fiction. Like many who move between the two forms, Ramirez brings a poet’s ear and formal creativity: the stories incorporate elements of many genres and styles, ranging from tightly contained realistic fiction set in the backseat of a Houston cab to a “reproduction” of a legal document filed on Mars. Every story is in some way concerned with the collision of Latinx and other cultures, and the people that wander through these liminal zones.

The first stories are more realistic representations of human experience, while later stories move to the more speculative. They are all tied together, however, by characters who wander: a runaway kid headed for El Paso, a traveling curandera, or a woman pursued by her past through a zombie-stricken world. Each story observes their lives and looks for the truths of lived experience.

In the first story, “The Three Masks of Iturbide Villalobos,” a third-generation luchador tells the story of his grandfather and father, Iturbide I and II. By telling us about both the persona and the family member, he explores the relationship between body and soul, lies and truth. His son concludes that Iturbide II, his father, was the greatest liar of all time; he never believed that what he did as a luchador was dishonest. Iturbide II told his son, “a wrestler is a liar in that he tells stories with his body.” This nod to the relationship between truth and lies in storytelling is an appropriate start for a collection that often challenges readers to consider ideas about the nature of truth and lies, even in fiction.

Dishonesty takes a quite different form in another realistic piece, “The Last Known Whereabouts of Ricardo Falfurrias,” when runaway teenager Ricardo, thinking of a teacher at high school he didn’t hate, is cheated out of a day’s pay and then given copious amounts of alcohol during a night of work as a bathroom attendant. Ricardo takes the money and buys his bus ticket to somewhere, drifting into a dreamless sleep. Nobody pays him any mind. The story is an open acknowledgment of our ugly reality: our society treats some people as subhuman. Ricardo Falfurrias is one of these people, and he knows it.

Later, more speculative stories also engage the reader with social issues, generally around Latinx rights and racism, using stark and visceral imagery in certain passages. In one, a curandera named Xitlali finds a cursed egg in a client’s room with a shell that, “strains and relaxes, emitting a sort of wheezing sound,” and, “feels less like a shell than a layer of warm skin … Xitlali picks at the shell. The white peels off, and the egg begins bleeding.” Moments like this are part of Ramirez’s superpower – this writing gets under your skin.

Spiritual and surreal elements frequent the second half of the book, culminating in three pieces of science fiction. In a story with heavy hints of Borges, coming in half way through the collection, the journalist Maximiliano Mondragón stares into his source Yzobeau’s mole finding that: “It is an aleph. Max sees into some other dimension where he and Yzobeau fall madly in love with each other.” This story uses the summarizing style characteristic of Borges, delivered perhaps with more palpable sentences. At its best, the work never stops to explain itself or to apologize — it doesn’t need to: “Yzobeau recalls a reality where she visits a giant tortoise who raises its head to return her stare; its obsidian eyes flicker with sunlight before softening into velvet.” Vivid images like this are well-placed throughout the stories. Like poems, they lend themselves to out-loud reading.

For what it’s worth, I would say that every piece would be worth taking the time to read aloud. Each story in The Book of Wanderers takes us through settings and experiences unified by their searching and search for identity, yet they’re all unique, often experimental. In these stories, Ramirez shows stylistic range and a well-developed voice characterized by an affinity for the beautiful sentence, told his own way.

The Book Of Wanderers
By Reyes Ramirez
The University Of Arizona Press
Published February 22, 2022