Book Review

Blake Sanz’ The Boundaries of Their Dwelling, winner of the Iowa Award for Short Fiction, captures longing and loss with a peculiar subtlety driven by convincing regional nuance. The collection of stories, some self-contained and others interlinked, depicts family fracture and reconciliation across the western gulf coast and deep south, and it asks some of the most interesting questions tied to migration that I’ve seen in contemporary literary fiction. One reads this story collection and walks away with an understanding that coming of age is both a traumatic and exhilarating experience for those with identities bifurcated by boundaries, including geographical and ethnic/racial, as well as childhoods teetered on a seesaw of unimaginable loss and unexpected reunion.

Here, in “A Family, with Death Snakes,” one of the collection’s most gorgeous, indelible lines is told from the point of view of a recently orphaned young girl named Sylvia, when she meets Manuel, a Veracruzan-born drifter who will eventually take her in. Manuel’s estranged son Tommy and his high school basketball team have travelled from New Orleans to Chiapas, and Manuel sees his son for a second time by surprise at the game. At the gym, Manuel brings along fatherless Sylvia, who a photographer mistakes for his daughter. Manuel, Sylvia, and Tommy pose for a photograph, playing the part of perfect family:

And in how he was looking at Manuel, she perceived a sense of loss that she was coming from the opposite side of: he was only now seeing what it meant to have a father, while she was just learning what it meant to live without one. . .

Sylvia comes of age in that moment, with the realization that she must “make of her life someday a moving thing,” a wisdom many of the characters must succumb to, willingly or unwillingly, a fate that seems destined for children of immigrants like Manuel whose lives will be marked by searching.

From the very first story—and one of the most delightful—“¡Hablamos!,” Sanz sets up this interesting proximity between sensuality and familial longing, and he is unafraid to disillusion his young characters so early in their lives. Two teenage friends from Mexico City, careful and shy Emi and her adventurous friend Frida, travel to Miami to appear on a Jerry Springer style talk show, in which they are meant to portray two sisters “vying for the attention of their father.” Emi is to be sleeved with gang tattoos and play the role of a drug addict, while Frida plays the dutiful golden child. The night before the show, Frida is entirely focused on boys, while Emi thinks only of her half-brother Tommy that she never met living in Louisiana, who exists only in a newspaper photo that doesn’t even show his whole face. Though they each carry one another’s trauma—Emi’s familial, Frida’s sexual–the teenage girls are unable to be emotionally intimate in the way that at least Emi desires, not until the show, when they are to play reversals of themselves.

This thematic line shows up again and again, perhaps shining most in “Blood Summons.”  Emi’s father Manuel tells his son Tommy, now an adult journalist, about his half-sister Emi only after taking Tommy to a strip club and watching his son receive a lap dance. There’s a very devastating moment where a woman guides Tommy’s hand inside her, and Manuel looks away. Is his father overwhelmed by how he is forced to see the son he abandoned as a grown man? It’s as though the lost time between them is held in that woman’s gesture. Sanz is getting at something uncomfortable and difficult here, perhaps that for these characters, their fractured relationships come into wholeness only through other, more private kinds of release.

If there is one critique to be made for this collection, it’s that the political undercurrent remains a weak connective tissue. The backdrop of the civil unrest in Mexico, particularly Manuel’s place in the massacre of student demonstrators in the 1960’s during the “Dirty War,” comes across as pure anthropology, not for lack of compelling description or clarity, but because these external conditions fail to play a significant part in releasing the characters’ inner turmoil. The final story in the collection, “Cazones,” is very brief, in which the now homeless and downtrodden Manuel takes his son Tommy to visit a farmer who has a story to tell about being offered money in exchange for doing some sort of bidding for Castro. The story ends with Manuel telling Tommy, through his facial expressions, “Here. . . this is for you.” However, to my mind at least, the effect doesn’t land because even though Tommy is a character who appears throughout several of the stories, a longing to understand the historical frame of reference of his father is either not expressed or written so sparsely between the lines that the reader can’t feel its depth.

There’s a lot to be admired about Sanz’ prose, a kind of daringness in the way that Sanz will allow his characters their simplicity while letting them to be carried away by their impulses and observations, told through rather sentimental prose. This seems faithful to cultural idiosyncrasies of the regions or “dwellings,” where the unspoken is something deeply felt. Too often, a character’s stoicism or pragmatic nature is used as some kind of device to depict emotional repression, but Sanz avoids such a limiting and judgmental gaze. Of course, there are moments when the narrator overshows the characters. But more often, the voice is charming and deliberate, grounding the characters to the land on which they stand and, in the case of the story “Hurricane Gothic,” fight for.

A word on structure: there are some very brief stories, or flash pieces, that, while containing their own gems, leave the reader somewhat distracted by the sharp change in direction. This coupled with their brevity can make them feel almost like too long an intermission from the main act, which is the story of Manuel, Emi, and Tommy. For instance, “Laurel Wreath” features characters we don’t see again, whose circumstances of loss and desire are rendered beautifully, but whose futures remain unclear. “Laurel Wreath” leaves us with a longing to follow their futures, and, perhaps, the “rules” of short fiction, which one could argue makes this story in the collection incomplete. However, this longing is precisely of the kind that the main characters experience on the periphery of our memories as we travel through the collection and across borders. While we move on as readers to other parts of the US, other tragedies, other family traumas, they are still missing their loved ones. Perhaps Sanz, by subverting traditional notions of short storytelling, gives us breadcrumbs as readers, just like Tommy and Emi get only breadcrumbs from their father all their lives.

One thing is clear: that Blake Sanz is pushing boundaries in meaningful ways. This isn’t experimental work for the sake of being experimental. I feel Sanz is making a point about the relevance of “narrative cohesion,” that leads us to ponder the title, The Boundaries of Their Dwelling. I suspect that Sanz wants us to think about what comes to our own minds when we think we know what a story of the “deep south” is, and who is a part of it. Lines of race, ethnicity, and culture overlap in overwhelming ways, and so it is fitting that we have a story collection that, at times, can be overwhelming. The structure itself is reflective of experience, not representative of the content, but the content itself. All in all, this is a worthwhile, original debut that prioritizes ambition over perfection and Sanz has my respect for it.

About the Reviewer

Lilia Shrayfer is a fiction writer in her second year at Colorado State University’s MFA program in creative writing. At CSU, Lilia also teaches composition and co-hosts the Colorado Review podcast. Before coming to CSU Lilia worked as a paralegal and theatre artist, and is a proud alum of the National Theatre Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. For her master’s thesis, Lilia is working on a historical fiction novel about life in and exile from the former Soviet Union, from the perspective of the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia.