States of Emergency and Emergence: The Death Drive in Stephen D. Gutierrez’s Fiction

A central tenet of art is conflict. As a writer, to be aware of such an aim is simple enough, but to illustrate it in your writing is difficult. To illustrate true conflict is difficult because it involves the synthesis of all the other elements of fiction. Take Moby-Dick as an example. What would we care for the conflict if Melville had not constructed such a complex character as Ahab? Or, what would we care for the conflicts found in O’Connor and Baldwin, if they ignored the figurative elements of fiction? 

But, the business of conflict can be controversial, particularly in the sensitive times we live in: book burnings, attempts on the lives of writers, etc. And, what’s more is these days the reading masses—the upper-classes—like their art to conform to their outlook. A reading of the New York Times best seller list is enough to affirm this supposition. Working-class fiction has always been romanticized in this country. So, it’s nothing new that a writer like Stephen D. Gutierrez would be passed over for another more palatable writer. One who writes stories with working-class characters who face the hardships of poverty only to reach success—not by realizing the capitalist game is rigged against the poor, but by achieving monetary success. The reading masses want happy endings in the books they read. And, the publishers are ready to provide that as a minor incentive that comes along with garnering encouragement for the selling of film rights.

Gutierrez’s work isn’t concerned with narrating the Disney version of the working class. I’d say he’s concerned with showing things as they truly are even if it risks confining his books to the small presses. Gutierrez’s stories are obsessed with death and in doing so he celebrates life. Poe, Melville, O’Connor, Baldwin were all in courting death. Further back, the Old Testament, Homer, Virgil, and Dante a part of the cult of death. Who reads their books but to celebrate life? Well, no one reads their books today because no one celebrates life, and death is of no consequence. Gutierrez, too, is a part of this death cult. He understands death in a way that few writers do today. 

When the poet Cynthia Cruz observes of the working-class’s attraction to the death drive “to return to its origin, to destroy everything in order to begin again” in The Melancholia of the Working-Class (Cruz, 80), she merely observes what Gutierrez illustrates. Gutierrez’s literary alter-ego “Walter” finds himself caught in an existential limbo again and again, trying to rescue his working-class self from those in power and in doing so gain agency over his own identity. This death drive talk doesn’t have to be theoretical, limited to lectures in the university; no, Gutierrez shows us it’s out there in the streets, too.

Gutierrez’s first collection, Elements, is a hybrid of short stories and essays. Gutierrez’s Walter serves as narrator and it’s through him that we glimpse many of the themes, the many faces of death that will characterize Gutierrez’s future works. “My Family, My Household by Walter C. Ramirez,” introduces his family as they cope with his father’s slow death by way of dementia. “My dad won’t come out of his room because he can’t walk anymore or talk, it stinks and smells of death and old age in there even though he’s only forty-seven” (Gutierrez, 52). The work lacks the sentimentality that one would expect in a story that attempts to recount one’s memory of their father. Gutierrez shows us the poverty, the filth, the confusion, and the anger that permeates the streets of East LA. This isn’t a telenovela or Gary Soto, it isn’t even Steinbeck.

Walter’s best friend, Mike, commits the biggest of all working-class crimes: he steals. He steals a silver crucifix from a store in historic Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, the main square of the city since Los Angeles was part of Mexico. It’s at this site where the histories of Mexico and America collide. Walter and Mike reflect on their father’s lives—more blood, more poverty, more confusion. The narrative style becomes a twisted Mexican Catholic incantation that rival the fevered hallucinations of Dostoyevsky, “going into hysterics inside at the whole prospect of meeting his father underground” and Walter urges Mike to go to meet his father in “the abyss of hell” (Gutierrez 64-65). Afterwards, Mike appears “standing in a halo of glory that rose from his ankles and covered him up to his head ... baptised, newly baptised” (66) having been validated by his father’s spirit. Later, Walter recounts a memory of his father brought on by mariachi music: “I’m thinking of him when he got all frustrated and started crying again in the kitchen, in the living room, in the garage, anywhere he was ... smiling with a big brave smile on his face, sweet and sad, actually, but smiling for me, for us, because he’s brave. Can you die like that, man?” (69).

In “My Family, My Household by Walter C. Ramirez,” Gutierrez sets his own Chicano history to encounter the more romanticized notion of the history as represented by Olvera Street. This conflict creates a rupture that challenges the romantic notions you find in any historic section of any major city, done up in bright colors and fetishized costumes as if Pixar had a hand in Olvera Street’s construction. Instead, we get poverty and confusion experienced by the relationships of Mexican working-class fathers and their sons.

In Live from Fresno y Los, Gutierrez uses his semi-autobiographical narrator, Walter, to tell the story of two rival hamburger diners. The newly constructed Lucky Guy’s Burgers located “in the Model City – where the proverbially more decent live” and the older Andy’s Super Burgers that “thrives in the barrio” where its customers are “prepared for bad things, wayward hits and senseless locura” (112). 

 Live from Fresno y Los shows Walter’s family descent further into the anguish and desperation of American poverty. Walter’s father can’t work for The Santa Fe Railroad anymore because of his succumbing to dementia. In “The Barbershop,” Walter tells how his older brother has taken the place as the breadwinner, “[h]e was pretty solid all around, taking care of my dad so much and doing his bit with the family budget, giving whatever he made in his current low-wage job to my mother” (83). By the time the reader gets to “Lucky Guys,” Walter has a job, too, “Aw, man what the hell. Grab it. Take the CETA job. Make some money. Plug in” (Gutierrez 118). He works as an assistant to an older man, Manuel, doing small maintenance jobs for the City of Commerce. 

It’s while Walter is helping Manuel raise the American flag—an ironic scene worthy of exploring on its own—up the city library’s flag pole that he first mentions the newly constructed Lucky Guy’s Burgers that “attracts with its glossy newness” (Gutierrez, 117). For Walter, the two diners come to represent conflicting sides of his—or any—working-class American: the mysticism of the model city vs. the familiarity of the barrio. The newly constructed Lucky Guy’s Burgers becomes a hot spot of sorts to people in the city, it takes on and replaces the social and cultural capital that Andy’s Super Burgers once had. Like all forms of indulgence—particularly for the working-class—the overwhelming desire to indulge will only bring about a temporary escape from one’s place in society. This narrative is as old as the short story itself—read Chekov, read Maupaussant, Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Fortunately most times Walter is aware of this, reflecting like a barrio Hamlet at one point in the story, “Son engages in an argument with himself, concerning the usefulness of ritual in the present-day situation” (Gutierrez, 118). 

Sooner or later, all of us in the working-class come to realize the solution is never finding a sense of self in “plugging-in” and making more money, you got to find it by engaging in the struggle toward your own identity. And Walter, our working-class hero, Walter, knows this deep down when he keeps returning to Andy’s Super Burgers. It’s here that he doesn’t feel compelled to offer a false—more socially acceptable—version of himself as he might have to in the newly constructed Lucky Guy’s Burgers. Realization is at Andy’s Super Burgers and its “cultural ties to the east side of LA...and the whole greasy, stinking, unhealthy mess served up on the bun of my choosing, a very sloppy, mismatched bun with overhanging meat and pungent onions sure to disappoint the more refined among you” (112). Even if going to Andy’s Super Burgers makes him an outcast with his friends, it allows Walter to revisit the past when his family and life was in a better place. From this perspective, the overarching assertion Gutierrez seems to be communicating here is that the working-class can ascertain a more complete sense of self by looking beyond “plugging-in” and looking beyond the momentary satisfaction new attractions might bring.

In the “World Came Crashing Down on My Wife” from Gutierrez’s most recent book The Mexican Man in His Backyard, he tells the story of his wife’s experience as a professor at a west coast university. Here, too, the issue of class conflict is apparent as a driving force in the narrative. The narrator, Steve, recounts how, much to their professors’ disappointment, they both decided to leave the East coast university they attended to go back to the West coast. Steve tells the reader, “There was such a disconnect between the fabled ivy tower and daily American life as sweated by regular American guys like me, not to mention estranged Chicanos” (Gutierrez 106).  But when they arrive, Steve’s wife Jackie finds a workplace that is much more hostile to her than the east coast: “you have a bunch of conservative hicks masquerading as liberals pushing their anti-affirmative action plans down our (my! the wild bad woman’s!) throat here in the valley where you have a 50 percent Chicano population bewildered and confused at school, half of them at least, because they don’t have any role models to attend to” (105). 

The situation that Jackie finds herself in is not unique for anyone from the working-class who finds themselves working in an unfamiliar job environment. Jackie faces criticism and ridicule again and again throughout “The World Came Crashing Down on My Wife,” not because she lacks the skills necessary to be a professor, but because Simpson, the man a position above her, was “a malicious man with a history of confrontation [who had] the upper hand. He was given free rein to do what he wanted with a too-fresh faculty member, an out-of-line young woman” (Gutierrez 109). Jackie’s philosophy, like Steve’s, stands in contrast against the dominant class. Throughout “The World Came Crashing Down on My Wife,” the reader sees Jackie go through a series of confrontations with Simpson, and the aim is to coerce her into accepting the patriarchal structure of American society and leaving behind her own identity—what Emerson calls “suicide” in “Self-Reliance.”

Death is the great symbol permeating Gutierrez’s work as it is in all great literature. You accept the values of the dominant class; your working-class identity is forgotten. Like the other stories in Gutierrez’s trilogy, his semi-autobiographical self is aware of this predicament. And the urge to return back to a place where the working-class identity is intact is evident. Initially, Steve and Jackie leave the East coast, but once they reject the pressure to assimilate, they retreat even further into this death drive. This is illustrated near the end of the story where Steve provides a series of endnotes, one of which reads: “The world came crashing down on my wife, man, I was there, too, huddled under the rubble. We stayed there for a season, and then split. When the rains came pouring down, and then shone mightily, we held each other and laughed, so happy to be alive” (Gutierrez 112). This “rubble” that Steve and Jackie find shelter in after rejecting the values and norms of the capitalist system represent a “dead zone” that as Cruz writes in The Melancholia of Class is, “still in some way wild—not yet tamed or swallowed up by capitalism” (186). Though this may seem like an optimistic end to the struggle of identity, Steve is more realistic. Like all working-class intellectuals he is aware that his and Jackie’s place is one more akin to limbo when he writes, “he walked among [the working-class], knowing he was a goddamn hypocrite if he claimed anything more than an ambivalent relationship to the frustrating bastards. He loved them, he hated them. But when he wrote about them, he was one of the best in America at it. He knew how full of shit they were, just like him,” (Gutierrez, 110).

Today, most anthologies are apt to categorize by race as opposed to class, as if the experiences of one Chicano from an upper-class family were the same as those of a Chicano from a working-class family. However, considering the ever growing disparity between the upper to middle-class and the working-class poor, it is easier to acknowledge that a Chicano kid growing up in the colonia has more in common with the Black kid growing up in the projects. The value of Gutierrez’s fiction and the fiction of many of other working-class writers is that it provides a rupture that frees up the true working-class histories of lives that major publishing establishments and the dominant class would rather romanticize or not acknowledge at all. 

Daniel Manuel Mendoza is a writer living in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. His fiction and reviews have appeared in Gulf Stream, Alchemy, American Book Review, and other places.