Kudos to the New Yorker for bringing Daniel Alarcón to the attention of the eastern rag's audience. The Oakland writer is one of the three West coast scribes from the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 "young" writers anthology who will be reading at City Lights Books on Weds/19. I suggest you go check up on the event – if not for the magazine's time-proven track record of tagging future lit stars, then because the more people in this country who read Alarcón, the less likely we are to plunge our country into madness.
Alarcón's are war stories, but not in the sense that we grow up with in America, where the term brings to mind bombs and sharp, whizzing death. Alarcon draws on his cultural memory of home country Peru (where he left for Birmingham, Alabama when he was three years old) to speak of the more prosaic nature of conflict through the eyes of people to whom it is brought, not those that strap on uniforms and board helicopters to go to it.
Take the novel he's best known for, Lost City Radio (Harper Collins, 288 pages, $24.95). It takes place – in the grand tradition of Latin American epics -- in a mythic town, or at least an unnamed city. A war has raged for years, resulting in the disappearance of radio star Norma's husband, Rey. An orphaned boy from the city shows up and with him an end to her endless, ragged wonderings about what happened to Rey. Every one of the book's characters is struggling to deal with the real nature of war: a messy business, sure -- but not one where the women, children, and elderly are left at home, as they are in many of our country's depictions of conflict.
There are few gunshots fired in Lost City Radio. Instead, the scene of war is rendered in social notes – illicit dance parties held after curfew, names you can and can't say on the radio, acceptance of loss, confusion. The story that Alarcón contributes to 20 Under 40 is Second Lives, which tells the story of a Peruvian family who sends their eldest son away from inflation and civil war to America, where he promptly immerses himself in the American life, which is to say he starts water-skiing, job-hopping, and stops writing home to his mom, dad, and brother.
What would our wars -- including the one we are waging on immigration -- be like if the general populace of our country saw it this way, instead of through the clip art pyrotechnics of TV news channels?
Plus, Alarcón is the only author I've ever heard to name-check a seminal tome from my childhood, The Phantom Tollbooth as being an influential one in his life. Plus, he lives in Oakland. The night's other readers, Chris Adrian and Yiyun Li, both hail from the Bay too. The last time the New Yorker pulled this same anthology stunt in 1999 they pegged Junót Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, and Jhumpa Lahiri before their ascent into best-sellerdom, so it'll be perfect if you're the before-the-curve type about the national fiction scene.
20 Under 40: Stories from the New Yorker
Weds/19 7 p.m., free
City Lights Books
261 Columbus, SF