In “Mountains Without Numbers,” the first short story in Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest collection, The Water Museum, a middle-age woman pages through her high school yearbook before heading into work.
Frankie, as the locals call her, owns the only diner left in her washed-up uranium town. “The sky feels like it’s on fire as she drives into town,” the Pulitzer Prize finalist writes. “Her morning clients are always there before she is. Waiting for her. Feels like the last six people in the West.” When she can, she keeps her back to the butte where, for decades, the most daring high school seniors had scaled the cliffs to paint their graduation date. The dates, the stories—all serve as memento mori, painful reminders of better times. “Is a town dead,” she wonders, “when the old men die, or when the children leave?”
The stories in The Water Museum stretch from South Dakota to California—from divorced Ivy League professors to illegal immigrants—but all of them share a peculiar loneliness. And though in many cases, that isolation is buttressed by a stark Western landscape, it is rooted in the insecurities and restless minds of the stories’ protagonists. A Chicano graffiti artist slips into reverie after finding strands of long blonde hair stuck to the windshield of a scrapyard vehicle. An Oglala Sioux encounters a white man passed out on the hood of a Volvo on a country road in Wyoming. A widower struggles to follow his minister’s advice and “bend like a reed in the wind,” even as he finds himself deeply agitated by the influx of immigrants in his community. All of these characters are cut off from the world, lost in their own psychic territory, stumbling in their search for a way back home.
Throughout the collection, Urrea uses both Chicano slang and a rural Midwest vernacular with unassailable authority. These pages are filled with language so electric you’ll want to re-read the sentences, relishing Urrea’s sharp eye for description. (“Dexter watched her bottom work the bright blue skirt like a couple of tractor motors under a tarp.”) But the rich language is simply a bonus; it’s the subtle revelations hidden in the stories that satisfy the reader. They reveal themselves in the barest details: “The old motor court sits across the street. And a couple of white houses and two trailers,” Urrea writes. “Frankie thinks about how each of those little places is a story.”
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
The Water Museum
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Company
272 pages, $25