Where I Stay
by Andrew Zornoza
Reviewed by John Madera
A caption beneath one of Andrew Zornoza's sun-scorched photographs reads: "There are cracks in the country -- in its families and highways, houses and rivers, factories, cellar windows, truck stops, in the sounds of chattering televisions, in the plexiglass booths of pay phones by bus stations, in the crushed glass of parking lots. . . . " This thought, from an unnamed and unmoored man, is echoed throughout Where I Stay. Often at odds with anyone he encounters, the narrator thinks he can replace people, "people in the cracks," with "broken pieces of the landscape that didn't quite fit together." Divided into short, standalone pieces -- flash fictions or prose poems -- Where I Stay might be best thought of as an interstitial novella, where what falls through the cracks finally coheres into some kind of narrative.
Zornoza's narrator, with a languorous but precise lyricism, traverses the Mid- and Southwestern United States, telling tales of greasy, smoky bus terminals and truck stops. He sadly recalls the loneliness of diners, strip malls, and factories, the cold hostility of bridges, warehouses, and urban blight, contrasting all of it with the desert's unforgiving glare, a dirty river's snaky stain, forgotten muddy pastures, and the desiccated environs of prairies, plateaus, and mountains.
The result is a mosaic, quilt-like form, which Zornoza often signals to the reader:
Sometimes I wrote things down, fragments. But then I looked at them and they did not seem real and there seemed to be no purpose in writing them. There was nothing in them, other than things I did not want to remember. . . .
. . . I faded, subsumed by broken pieces of Americans and places -- people, places and feelings all stitched together, larger than themselves, than me and you, all stretched around us, our life together, around the country.
He selects details with a jeweler's precision, endowing them with symbolic meaning and using rhythmic prose that twists and turns like the many roads on which his narrator travels. Amidst all the beauty, however, is much terror: his sister once tried to kill herself; two immigration officers terrorize him; a police officer beats him up before he sleeps in a cornfield. There are bizarre encounters with pimps and prostitutes as well as a dream of lovers connected by several aluminum umbilical cords.
Interspersed among these lyrical passages of the road are photographs, as strange as they are mundane, all of which have text underneath that usually bear little relation to the photos. The first, a panoramic shot of a desert with billowing, sunlight-tinged clouds above, has this written beneath it: "I want you to know how it was with me." And underneath another photo: "I have systematically and selectively removed myself from my past. The past does not fit in my present tense. I do not fit in myself."
Zornoza's stories sprawl across landscapes, sift through details with a syntactical sieve, and revel in minutiae; superfluous exposition is replaced by evocative gestures, bland dialogue surrenders to resonant internal monologue. Consider Where I Stay
a road map that carefully marks its scorched landscapes and anonymous small towns while also pointing out the desultory crew of squatters, border guards, prostitutes, drug dealers -- transitory figures all -- who live hardscrabble lives within them. As such, Zornoza is as much a novelist as he is a cartographer of loneliness, doubt, and fear, one that fearlessly delineates the stark realms of disappointment, unrequited love, and unfulfilled dreams.