In Dagoberto Gilb’s new collection of short stories, Before the End, After the Beginning, we see people in transitional phases―neither flying nor drowing, but floating.
Forget humble beginnings and glorious and tragic endings. We’ve been waiting for a writer to focus on the moments between all of that, to write about the transitional phases in our lives that don’t get very much play: the time we watched our attractive aunt undress from behind a cracked door, the early days of our recovery from a massive stroke, and that one time, when we were racially profiled by the cop patrolling the subdivision. Dagoberto Gilb’s new collection of short stories, Before the End, After the Beginning, celebrates the middle of the characters’ journeys and is less concerned with whether or not great things are on the horizon.
Out of money and looking for work, Guillermo―“Billy” to everyone else―stays with his Aunt Maggie in “Willows Village.” The arrangement looks good at first, with Aunt Maggie’s refrigerator full of food and endless bottles of wine to drink, but somewhere between interviewing at car dealership in Santa Ana, sleeping in an all-pink bedroom, and getting too friendly with his aunt’s houseguest, Guillermo begins to realize just how loose family ties can be:
I started looking at those photos she had everywhere, that I’d shoved under the bed and put in an empty doll box. Pictures of so many people I had never seen and not one of my family, of my mom or dad but especially my mom. My mom, who talked about Maggie all the time. Even if she was jealous of her, she admired her like a hero and envied her life. I wondered if I should tell my mom when I got back. So many photos of so many people and so many families and not one of our own family. Where did she get them all?
Gilb’s stories suggest that it’s not a life-changing event that helps someone to grow, but instead, it’s the choices they make afterward, and the support they receive, that will get them to the next point in their lives. Pivotal moments, like suffering a stroke, only serve as the context for learning one’s limitations and testing one’s determination. This is especially the case in “Please, Thank You:”
nancy insists on my being buckled up in my wheelchair to go to physical therapy. and she wont push me, unless were in a hurry. that is, unless she is. today shes in a hurry, and we have to go through an uphill hallway to the therapy room. i dont think shes a lesbian, though she has that short hair, ironed, tucked in shirt, fitted jeans, and never married to a man bark, and fire hydrant frame of… maybe its just her, who knows. shes nice to me, or means to be, when shes snapping. i like her like you do your hardass coach. even if i don’t know her win-loss record.
The lack of capitalization and punctuation that Gilb uses in the story, though distancing at first, messes with conventional form and supports the narrative point-of-view. It does away with familiar personal-illness-essay explanations of how hard it is to recover from a stroke, and it shares the experience of difficulty with the reader.
In “Uncle Rock,” Erick is a kid in a transitional period of his own. He and his mother are both opportunists, but this story shows us the moment that Erick realizes that even though it’s fun when his mother’s dates try to win her over by giving him gifts, he’s responsible for his role of the polite, outgoing son. When he fails to live up to this, he blows it for both of them:
When she got upset about days like that, she told Erick that she wished they could just go back home. She was tired of worrying. ‘Back,’ for Erick, meant mostly the stories he’d heard from her, which never sounded so good to him: She’d had to share a room with her brothers and sisters. They didn’t have toilets. They didn’t have electricity. Sometimes they didn’t have enough food. He saw this Mexico as if it were the backdrop of a movie on afternoon TV, where children walked around barefoot in the dirt or on broken sidewalks and small men wore wide-brimmed straw hats and baggy white shirts and pants.
The last sentence in the above excerpt is a good example of Gilb’s careful parceling of details in each of the stories. Among a paragraph of stark sentences, there is usually one longer sentence with a focused description. This maneuver makes those few particulars stick with us, and we get to know the characters through them. Whether this is thoughtful architecture on Gilb’s part, or if it’s pure spontaneity, it gives this short collection weight.
Before the End, After the Beginning is a book of stories about the things that people learn in transit from one point of their lives to the next. There is hope here, even if one of the characters has lost the use of one side of his body. Gilb shows us these moments with a simple, artful honesty that gives the impression that while the lessons these characters are learning might not be the most profound, they are definitely some of the most important.