Empathy And Detachment Mix In 'The King Is Always Above The People'

Nov 2, 2017

There are two kinds of short story collection. The first is the sampler, in which each story sounds and feels brand new, its voice distinct from the ones around it. The second is more unified. Not a linked collection as such, but a collection in which each story comes from the same world and speaks in the same tone. I love both; I want to read both. But if you're in search of a unified scene, you can do no better than to read Daniel Alarcón's new book.

The King Is Always Above the People is Alarcón's second collection of short stories, which he's published between two novels and countless episodes of Radio Ambulante, the longform podcast he co-founded to tell Latin American stories from around the world. His work is wide-ranging in topic and form, and yet it's all clearly part of one project — Alarcón is an empathic observer of the isolated human, whether isolated by emigration or ambition, blindness or loneliness, poverty or war. His stories have a reporter's mix of kindness and detachment, and perhaps as a result, his endings land like a punch in the gut.

Take "The Auroras," the last and longest story in this collection. It begins with a man who wanders away from his life, and ends with that man in a shed, imprisoned by something like his own choice. I put the book down with my mouth open and my eyes stinging. But the story has gentler pleasures, too. Alarcón is at his most evocative in "The Auroras," his language perfectly stripped down. The story opens with the protagonist arriving in a new port; he's walking toward the water when "a door opens. A woman steps from her brightly painted house, wearing a simple dress, so white it glows. Her black hair is pulled black tight. She has a lovely smile, a lovely figure, and stands against a wall as green as the sea." That's all, and yet I can see the scene perfectly.

This is not to say that Alarcón is averse to showing off. He's a brilliant stylist, and there are plenty of moments in this collection where he's happy to flex. My favorite is "The Provincials:"A young actor narrates a night drinking in his father's rural hometown as a play, a surreal sort of farce in which the bar's television constantly reflects the action — when a young waitress arrives at the table, the stage directions tell us, "She hovers over the table, leaning in so that Nelson can admire her. He does, without shame. Television: a wood-paneled motel room, a naked couple on the bed." From another writer, this would be overt to the point of absurdity. From Alarcón, who is never truly overt, it's an in-joke and a delight.

Or there's "Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot," which I wish I could call the Obama story. It isn't, not really. It's a sketch of a postal worker who, about to break up with his boyfriend, starts to reminisce about the first love of his life, who he "met at a party in Chicago, long before he was president, at one of those Wicker Park affairs with fixed-gear bikes locked out front, four deep, to a stop sign." Not Barack. Abraham. No explanation, no time-travel mechanics, just gay Lincoln on the Chicago city council, too broke for heat in the winter, in a gorgeous little tale of loss and a world we live near, if not in.

Alarcón is nearly always oblique in this way. Even the title story has no one political point. There's a dead dictator, but the story isn't about his death, or about the dictatorship. It's about a man who wants, on a purely personal level, to be free. That's what the whole collection is about: people who want to be free. Alarcón writes about them with a grayscale beauty that few writers can achieve, or try to. His purpose isn't to approve or condemn, or to liberate. He's writing to show us other people's lives, and in every case, it's a pleasure to be shown.

Lily Meyer works at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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