This review of the House of Order first appeared March 17, 2012. In the past week, the author–John Paul Jaramillo–was recognized as one of the top 10 new Latino authors by “Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature”. Jaramillo has reviewed for The Morris Chair. Congratulations, John Paul!
The House of Order, by John Paul Jaramillo, is billed as a “composite,” and is a series of short stories linked by a familial network whose complex relationships become more or less clear as you read them all. It is apparent that these stories were written at different times, like snapshots taken from memory, and then placed, at first haphazardly,on the mind’s refrigerator. Later, they are arranged in some order that makes sense to the author and which will, hopefully, make sense to the visitor. We put memories in such places because they touch us deeply and we prize them in some fashion. It is a rare instance when they touch the hearts of others–but in The House of Order, they touched me.
The family Ortiz puts the “fun” in dysfunctional. The men are frequently abusive, the women, though mostly compliant, carry on with inner strength to provide some semblance of “order” to The House of Disorder which this life really is. The children–like the most frequent (although not the only) narrator, Manito–are getting further away from the old ways (at one point, the Abuelita–“grandma”–complains, “Goddamn kids don’t know their own language!”). Violence bubbles away beneath the surface of their lives, to burst open at any time. The setting of their lives is forlorn, the most popular color of their vehicles primer, the foundation of their lives burnished with rust.
Jaramillo can evoke atmosphere with a skill that I, quite frankly, envy. Consider this description of the lives the Ortiz family leads, as narrated by Manito:
…around Huerfano County “deserted” means losing a ride out to the lanes for work in the onion fields. Quitting school to work and contribute to the mortgage. Ignitions that won’t fire and friends who won’t come around. Cousins dropped off from New Mexico to share beds and food. Half fixed televisions for Saturday morning cartoons and radios smashed before the World Series. Couches and chairs dropped onto back porches gone un-mended and machine parts and tools sacrificed to the rust of early winters. Here it means CF&I Steel picking up and closing offices, union negotiations breaking down. Husbands who aren’t faithful. Fathers dying. Lies and stories half-told and then forgotten unless pressed and pushed.
The family includes Manito, and his brother Romes (who really isn’t his brother). Manito’s father, Relles, isn’t in the picture, although we learn something of him (he is a sometime narrator). Relles doesn’t end up well. The phrase “crash site” pops up occasionally, and such an occurrence is said to mark the sad end of Relles. In any event, the person to whom Manito looks for any sort of paternal guidance is the hapless Ernesto (“Neto”), Relles’ brother. He is hardly the best role model, but it is clear that he loves the boy. Neto is a man who preaches a good work ethic, but falls short of it and,like so many in this House of Order, turns to drink to his detriment (and to the detriment of those around him).
Jaramillo can evoke emotion with a rare economy of words. After the grandfather, Santiago (“Jefe”) becomes angry with his wife, Cordelia (“Jefita”, aka Abuelita), he drags her “by the forearm and then the hair in a frightening dance:”
And as he slapped her face the house went dead quiet. No television or laughter. No boys crying or calling for their mama. Later as the Jefita walked the backyard to smoke her cigarettes and stared up into the cloud-infested skies, she thought back to her father’s words about the Jefe and his kind.
Love is there, mixed up with the violence. It is clear at some point, when anger erupts between Santiago and his brother Metidio during a jailhouse visit that Cordelia pulls the soul strings in the family. She quiets the two, shaming them into realizing that they are, in the final analysis, brothers and are all either of them have.
There are times when, because of the way these stories are stitched together, it becomes difficult to assess just who is talking. In many cases, the story is narrated by the young Manito. In one story, I was surprised to find near the end that the narrator was Manito’s father, Relles. The more I read, I was eventually able to determine by the context who was talking. Sometimes, the story is rendered in the third person, even if Manito (“the boy”) is the subject. However, any one of these stories could stand on its own and still convey the power of what is in the writer’s heart. Standing together, they present a challenge not unlike a jigsaw puzzle–but a challenge that I, for one, was willing to meet given the skill with which Jaramillo creates the pieces.
I hope this book, these stories, will not be pigeonholed as “Latino” lit. It is true that they speak perhaps most persuasively to Mexican-Americans because the picture is one they can better relate to (the setting, in time, is recent–from the 60s through at least the early 90s, as near as I can tell). But the story speaks to anyone with a family that leaves something to be desired, where there is love, hate, or a combination of the two. And today, when more and more people find themselves unemployed, even those in the more comfortable middle class are finding that primer is not such a bad color.
I get the strange feeling, reading these stories, that I am experiencing something fresh and that someday I may (if I live long enough) just see the name John Paul Jaramillo in an anthology of short stories, or a novel by same in a college literature class as required reading. I hope so. I think he has the stuff.
However, if this happens, I hope it is in an American Literature class, not just a Latino Literature class. These stories speak to all of us.