When filmmakers turn to fiction, plot is always king. Characters and their motivations take a back seat, and the subtle components—the way fiction can get deep inside your mind and play with your inner voice—are often forgotten.
Return to Arroyo Grande, the third collection of short stories by Jesús Salvador Treviño, an award winning film and television director, are page-turners. They are linked, the whole collection feeling like a sequel to The Fabulous Sinkhole and Other Stories (1995). The same characters pop up in different episodes, events are mentioned, and information is dropped to push the plot forward. The danger of this technique is that the prose can come across as a TV series treatment. Lines like, “—at least I’ve learned that from Jeannie and the others at the Pirámide. But what is Father Ronquillo saying?” come across as camera directions.
On the other hand, linking the stories and having the characters wander in and out of different scenes, we get a complete picture of the small Texan town, Arroyo Grande.
Treviño nods his hat to magical realism, and although more witty than poetic, there are apparition visitations, a warehouse of lost objects, a psychologist who treats a patient from another person’s dream, a theme-park that swallows people, a small town cop who visits a floating family, and other surreal twists of plot which keep the reader sharp. An astronaut hitting a baseball in the solar system from the moon is a particularly sweet and patriotic image:
Reymundo and Jim stood in awe as the tiny ball floated silently into the abyss above them.
“With those solar panels, that baby is going to leave the solar system in twenty years!” Jim said. “And partner, you’ll have made history. The first baseball to be batted out of the solar system!”
“By my calculations,” Reymundo replied, “it’ll actually be twenty-two years, but who’s counting?”
Trevino’s prose is simple and straight-forward. Conflicts are resolved with cute devices. Although the description of the tight-knit Chicano community is illuminating, water-tight, and rich with entertaining details, the overall impact is weakened by an imposing narrative structure that seems to come from the need to link the stories rather than unleash them into the sky like a child with a balloon at the state fair. Clearly, Return to Arroyo Grande and the other included stories are charming, but shouldn’t we ask more of literature?
A fun read full of imagination and joy, the prodigals have returned to a borderland homeland to sit around and tell stories of the good times, where no one gets hurt and nothing dies, or if they do, they are brought back to life by some magical power, whether it be a sinkhole, an aquifer, or an insurance company. Don’t worry: things are okay in Grande Arroyo and always will be.