Breath by breath


Drowning Tucson
Aaron Michael Morales
330 pages,  softcover: $15.95.
Coffee House Press, 2010.

"He'd felt safer in the desert than he ever had in his life, as if some outside force were protecting him. But now, in the bowels of the city, he was a stationary target."

That's Tucson in the 1980s, a city of snowbirds, developers and perky undergraduates, in a desert crossed with dry washes that can turn murderous in a moment.

Aaron Michael Morales, who was born and raised in Tucson, writes about the southern Arizona city and its surrounding landscape with such precision that it's sometimes hard to remember that Drowning Tucson is a work of fiction. Through the lives of intertwining characters -- including an Air Force officer, Latin King gang members, a prostitute, a kidnapped child and a young gay man whose lover has been murdered -- the author explores emotions that most of us would rather ignore. Time and again, Morales reminds us that in geographies more complex than Hollywood or Hallmark, passion is rarely synonymous with love.

This is not an easy book to read: Morales tears his characters apart and puts their seething grief on display, and sometimes it's a grief too heavy to bear. In real life we often turn a blind eye to brutality and injustice, but it's impossible to glance away from Morales's novel. It becomes necessary to follow the threads of the lives that he weaves together -- necessary to know what will happen to these people, trapped in their darkness and crippling desire.

Morales drowns his readers as well as the city, but the sensation feels less like a loss of consciousness than a sudden awakening. Only after finishing the last sentence is it possible to exhale.

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