Stroke of insight: A review of Before the End, After the Beginning

by Jenny Shank

Before the End, After the Beginning
Dagoberto Gilb
194 pages, hardcover: $24.
Grove Press, 2011.

Before the End, After the Beginning, Dagoberto Gilb's remarkable new fiction collection, begins with an arresting story written in lowercase letters, titled "please, thank you." The reason becomes clear when a nurse reminds the narrator that he's suffered a stroke, much as Gilb himself did in 2009, impairing the right side of his body and making capital letters difficult to type. In Gilb's characteristically natural-sounding and yet eloquent voice, the narrator describes the disorienting and infantilizing experience of waking up in a hospital, having lost control of his body and life:

"i am weak, and everyone is bigger, stronger, tougher than me. they take blood or pull my body around. ... what does it matter what i think or feel? nobody sees this work they do, and i am just meat, a carcass. if i kick them with the one leg that can, will i be at least more wild tasting meat?"

Many of the stories in this thought-provoking collection feature a man who has lost status in life, either physically or financially. In "Willows Village," Guillermo, who goes by Billy because he "didn't want to sound like (he) just crossed," is a married father who leaves El Paso to stay with his fetching aunt Maggy in Santa Ana, Calif., while he looks for work. Like several other characters in the collection, Maggy, a Mexican-American, has married a rich white man who is usually away on business. She and her equally attractive friend do little but sit around the house drinking wine in their bikinis, spending so freely that at one point, when Maggy opens her purse, "it explode(s) money like a jack-in-the-box." The combination of flaunted cash, booze and flirtation leads Billy toward perdition. Money likewise combines with a subtle exploration of racial tension to ignite one of the strongest stories in the collection, "Cheap."

In Before the End, as in Gilb's other award-winning books, he captures the lives of the kind of people who are seldom depicted in fiction, Southwesterners who work with their hands and worry about whether the police will pull them over because of their appearance, people who agonize over how far each paycheck will stretch. Over and over again, mistakes or misfortune knock them down. And yet they carry on with dignity, facing an always-challenging world with wry and hard-won honesty.

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