The contents of Juan Martinez’s remarkable debut story collection, Best Worst American, vary widely in length but their ambition and craft remain consistent. While certainly fascinated by the United States as a subject, these works are also deeply responsive to the literature and landscapes of South America, and draw on international currents of magic realism and slipstream. Some are very funny, but you don’t derive laughs from a Martinez story without a concomitant invitation to think about what you’re laughing at. The laughter of this collection is both heartfelt and rueful, empathetic and dispassionate.
For instance, in the very short story “Forsaken, the Crew Awaited News from the People Below,” the bewilderment of the mysteriously shrinking crew is comical, but their situation is probably not. A few of them are in the process of surviving an obscure lower-deck disaster on their ship. The nature of the disaster is never identified, its victims are never recovered or even declared dead. But, once it’s over, the ship is turned posthaste into a tourist stop. For a fee, Martinez tells us, you can have your picture taken there, with one ear pressed to a communication device that may still speak to those entombed—or existing in a permanent state of bewilderment—below.
Most, when photographed, lean into the device, ears against the auricular. “Hello?” they say in jest. If the crew and authorities are still down there, and the device is functioning from their end, that’s all they hear: Hello, hello, hello. Hello, anybody there? Hello? (p. 184)
It’s a joke, it’s not a joke; it’s a tragic and alarming predicament, except maybe it’s only weird or frustrating or sad. The mood of many entries in Best Worst American can be described as peri-apocalyptic, or apocalyptic-ish. The collection veers from recent hyper-serious dystopian trends in genre fiction (one story is wryly titled “After the End of the World: A Capsule Review”), and works throughout to destabilize the idea of a definitive End-Times scenario. It turns its attention rather to the forms of solace, companionship, and entertainment we eke out around termini of many kinds. In “Errands,” Rosalie—aged, at a guess, between eight and twelve—inhabits a future shaped by what appears to be a cataclysmic global corporate takeover. She’s lost her parents in a synthetic forest, but it’s OK: she still talks to them sometimes. Best of all, she has her own apartment, and the benign attention of two neighboring women she runs errands for. Maybe she’ll marry one of them someday. For now, though, at home in her own space, she enjoys “a lonely sort of happiness, or a happy sort of loneliness” (p. 119). Anything we’d recognize as “nature” doesn’t really seem to exist anymore—trees are planted streetlights, “suicidal and nutritious” birds migrate “from nowhere to nowhere” (p. 113). But that’s not bothering Rosalie much. She knows what her human-made consolations are, and accesses them unapologetically. This might be the end of the world as we know it, but it’s hardly the end of the world … The story “Domokun in Fremont” focuses on a different kind of rupture, and a similar kind of pragmatic resourcefulness in its young female protagonist. Seven-year-old Iberia Sampang is catastrophically lost in Las Vegas with her two younger siblings. Her only source of moral support is a stuffed Domokun toy. The children have wandered from the anti-abortion protest their father is running, smack into the Babylonian welter of Fremont Street: “Ground Zero for sin,” they’ve been told (p. 40). The reader is immediately worried about them for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that their family clearly believes the seventh seal is about to be cracked at any minute. But Iberia and her irrepressible stuffie prove equal to the task of finding help in unlikely places and even, it may be, of recruiting badly down-at-heels supernatural guides. By the end of the story—with the children restored to a safe pickup location—we feel relatively confident that Iberia will not lose herself in the quasi-infernal world she’s being raised in by her religiously conservative parents. She may even, someday, be able to find a path through the manufactured disorientations of the world at large. “[Iberia] watches her dad’s signs … swaying against the lights and the giant television screen. No one else seems to be watching them … She sits, her siblings with her, feeling very safe and very uneasy” (p. 45).
“Very safe and very uneasy” is a good way to sum up the state-of-being of many of Martinez’s characters. Self-possessed, optimistic girls like Rosalie and Iberia can filter out things in their environment that might make wobblier grownups lie down on the pavement and weep. Still, even Rosalies and Iberias have nervous moments. Grownups should be uneasy if they’re in (or reading) Best Worst American, because the action of a Martinez story involves dealing with weird peripheral phenomena, and some are scary as hell. Like—it’s always possible that you, yes, you, might just disappear. But until that happens you’re … safe?
Throughout the collection, Martinez takes up the matter of imminent loss, of sudden irrevocable absence. Sometimes disappearances are given an absurdist treatment, sometimes narrated straight on, and sometimes they are examined for the intimations of freedom they contain. To disappear from one story is, after all, to engage the possibility of becoming present in a different story, maybe your own this time. Martinez holds the doors of these works open for his characters, inviting them to come and go, and many prefer the latter. Not even ghosts stick around for long in Best Worst American and, good Lord, we all know what ghosts are supposed to do: haunt. Recur. Refuse to leave. But in Martinez’s telling they exit in pursuit of their own afterlives, even when you want them to stay. As the narrator of “The Spooky Japanese Girl is There for You” says, of a vanished supernatural visitor: “She’s gone, you miss her, but ghosts move on: They can’t hang around all day” (p. 148).
It’s hilarious, it’s also serious. Here, and elsewhere, Martinez suggests that a defining measure of our own maturity and intentional kindness is the ability to accept someone’s decision to leave us. To respect their choice even if we don’t—as in the case of a ghost!—have full access to their reasons. In my favorite story in the collection, “Well Tended,” the male teenage narrator’s tale of a summer spent caring for an apartment full of gossipy, sentient plants depends, for its beautiful weird build, on the image of a woman’s departure. “You,” he thinks of her, understanding the need to forget her soon, believing wholly in her separate life: “you with your red hair and brown shoulders out in Tampa or Pensacola, driving down I-95 with the palms and the scrub and the lakes all whipping past your driver’s-side window like they’ve got somewhere they need to be right away …” (p. 61). This driver in motion, in a world in motion, is the plants’ owner. She has abandoned them to the narrator’s keeping, and abandoned him to the decent, unrequited crush he is in the business of working through. Will she come back? No. But she and her plants have taught him something about desirable, autonomous Others, and how to flourish in contact with them. The lesson is predicated on both disappearance and a near-religious faith in the separate true existence of every living thing.
By the end of the book, Martinez has turned the theme of sudden absence into a gateway to everything from childhood fears of alien abduction (“Souvenirs from Ganymede,” originally published as creative nonfiction), to the tricky emotional work involved in letting go of former lovers and idealized unattainable beloveds. When he is working in a mode closer to horror, it also provides access to the routine pall of fear in a country where violent kidnappings are part of regular life. He explores this mood and set of conditions in a stunning story set in Colombia, “The Coca-Cola Executive in the Zapatoca Outhouse.” He brings that horror to America in the collection’s first entry, “Roadblock”: an affectionate, razor-sharp tale of family dysfunction, sanctuary, and pyrokinesis.
Martinez is originally from Colombia, and there’s something that presses hard on the author’s art in one protagonist’s description of day-to-day existence in that country. “In Colombia you went your way and lived your life—played your golf, raised your family—until something terrible happened to you or to someone you knew” (p. 89). Very safe and very uneasy. An author as skillful, playful, generous, and unsparing as Martinez can get to a lot of fascinating places from that departure-point. His mode of travel is sometimes frightening but, believe me, you want to go with him.