In the electric hum of Fernando A. Flores’s fiction, you might not always be sure if you’re in this world or another, eerily adjacent universe. In Valleyesque, Flores’s new collection of short stories, border towns of the Rio Grande Valley straddle multiple realities from one story to the next and galactic potential crackles through prose that conducts the prickly, magnetic energy of the desert. In one story, possums with eyes like “tiny stones dipped in ink,” write tell-all books and rig elections. In another time and town, the narrator laments that “when the new gangsters got elected and took control, atoms could no longer be said to be the smallest form of matter,” and biology class takes a turn toward phys ed instead. In these Valleys—for each story inhabits its own imagined infrastructure, its own peculiar governance—the known world pulses and hums underneath like distant bass. Valleyesque, exactly: not quite the Valley, but not not the Valley, either.
In “You Got It, Take It Away,” a literal veil bifurcates reality. One afternoon, Rafael finds himself in the house of his dying, “more than likely racist” neighbor Lewis, pushing his hand through an alien, non-Newtonian invisibility cloth that Lewis’s father obtained during his secretive Air Force days at Roswell. The cloth disappears Raf up to his forearm, before he crumples the cloth to bounce like a rubber ball and folds the cloth like a paper airplane to sail it across the room. Raf wants nothing to do with Lewis, but the mysterious cloth glitters, irresistibly, in his mind. When Raf and Lewis argue about citizenship and Raf’s naturalization, the cloth stirs us, too: identity begins to slip next to alien technology that melts any certainty of physics and of our solitude in the universe. Borders—political and personal ones—mean something altogether new if bodies can jettison their physicality like magic.
A Dadaist punk aesthetic runs through Valleyesque, and, like the best mix tapes, these stories take the reader on a symphonic journey, dilating the mind and the heart by turns. One story unravels at the seams with absurdity and beauty, and the next shimmers somberly in that fresh, raw space. Flores amplifies our capacity to feel. In “Nocturne of a World Concave,” thugs slip Frederic “Papá” Chopin into a luchador mask, kidnap him, and spirit him to a secret castle where his piano has been held ransom: to get it back, Chopin must perform a private concert for a dying king. Surprising sadness cuts through the totalizing absurdism, lyricism emanates from strangeness. Characters spend time alone with their thoughts and their surroundings, processing, like readers, the strangeness of the world they find themselves in. When solitary characters do find others, a palpable sweetness envelops even the most adamant loners. By the time we get to the final choose-your-own-adventure drama of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, Flores has shown us how to be radical and gentle in equal measure, and we’re primed and ready to imagine different futures for Oswald, perhaps even for ourselves.
In a recent interview, Flores spoke about being interrupted from his writing to help wrangle a loose chicken—so he wrote the chicken in. This attention to life-like details makes his alternative realities sparkle with the quotidian banalities that bring our lives into relief. Characters eat in most of the stories in Valleyesque; they come in and out of taco joints, donut shops, and diners. People make soup: they gather ingredients, they tend to it, they put it in Tupperware for strangers to take home, they eat it slowly and carefully with company. Days always have weather, brashly sunny or too cool or almost snowing, and Flores and his characters watch the sky, its color, the clouds, the chem trails. Chopin awakes to “the cold slobber of the orange sun dripping down his face.” In another story, “The rim of the sky was like wet clay slowly hardening into ceramic.”
An unending curiosity lingers like fog through Valleyesque: imagery arrives from sheer curiosity and a willingness to just open a door, to try something because it’s fun. Reading Flores means basking in the sheer joy of playing with language and seeing just how far a sentence can go until its meaning breaks through to another realm. But the stories don’t feel random; they feel tight and tethered, ripe with meaning both obvious and obscure. In “Ropa Usada,” a thrift clothing store spills into new, undulating zip codes and landscapes, in which mountains of soccer jerseys lead to lush glove jungles and royal shantytowns. Terror and tenderness swirl around each other: gang violence, corporate greed, and racism exist, as they do in life, right alongside the security guard who gifts a mink coat to a good customer on her way out of the thrift store, a sister donates her earwax selflessly, a man spends time with touching photographic portraits of his recently passed mother and sees her anew.
Notably, Flores’s characters accept the worlds they live in. They may not like it, but they accept it. Where do we go from here? they seem to ask. The characters in Valleyesque acknowledge the absurdity of the world, they see it, know it, and still make their way toward something that resembles peace. In “The Science Fair Protest,” a narrator notices events unfold as if right out of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Borders between literature and life blur. If characters can find themselves living out fiction in their worlds, perhaps their devotion to hope would be a meaningful way to live out ours.
Jenna Crowder is a writer and editor living in Maine. Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Art Papers, Boston Art Review, BURNAWAY, Liminalities: a journal of performance studies, and Temporary Art Review, among other publications. She is currently working toward her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.