Concho River Review, published by the Department of English and Modern Languages at Angelo State University, presents a strong list of talented writers in this issue. Most of the prose and poetry here revolve around country life or the outdoors, but these are not the unifying themes of this journal. The only connection is solid writing “from Texas and beyond.”
“A Gutting on the Camino Real” by Jeffrey DeLotto is a murder mystery set in the rural landscape of east Texas during the old West. Our narrator is Two Hawks, a Native American who sets out to uncover the truth of a grisly murder near the Neches River: “But here a white man had been killed, gutted like a fish, the entrails of the living man wrapped around his legs.” Two Hawks digs the body out of a shallow grave and examines it with the analytical eye of a modern crime scene investigator. I enjoyed his brief musings on the white man’s burial process:
No, they had not honored this man with one of those long wooden boxes the traders and Spaniards used to enclose their dead . . . Why, with all their talk of their kind god and spirits, would one want to so trap a spirit or create any kind of impediment to that soul’s wandering for another world?
Two Hawks then sets out to question the locals about this man, and the startling truth behind his death slowly unravels. DeLotto’s style blends western and noir themes into one thrilling and satisfying mystery. I hope he writes more stories like this in the future.
“Odell Among Them” by Mark Walling is another piece of thrilling short fiction that grabs you right from the start: “Shadowed by black oak and box elder, Odell looked down on the lighted throng and recalled the time when he too hoped heaven might be real.” Set during the Great Depression, Odell is sneaking into a tent revival with a pistol hidden in his boot. His motives are not clear at first, but his troubled past and his dangerous goals are revealed in flashbacks threaded into the narrative. Hate and anger are central themes in Odell’s sad life. Walling does a great job translating Odell’s destructive thoughts onto the page: “Odell’s anger solidified, as if his guts were fingers balling into a fist, during his sojourn down the hill.”
Allen Gee’s personal essay “Fraught with Masculinity” examines and challenges what it means to be an Asian man in American society. Aside from the great Bruce Lee, Gee did not have many Asian-American role models to live up to while growing up during the 1960s: “The martial arts vein held little appeal for me; I was impressed by but couldn’t see myself executing jaw-snapping roundhouse kicks or delivering lightning-fast flurries of nearly invisible punches.” Gee had to live with racial stereotypes hanging over his head for most of his young adult life, stereotypes such as “the mathematics geek; the youthful music prodigy; [and] the fumbling Asian nerd who can’t speak English or pronounce his Rs.” The reader is drawn into Gee’s struggle for personal identity, but there are moments where Gee shows how humor is the best defense against a lifetime of degrading labels: “You understand just how powerful stereotypes are when your first girlfriend in your late teens tells you with breathless approval that you’re not how she expected you would be.” Funny, suspenseful, and deeply personal, this essay is a great read for anyone struggling to find themselves and break the chains of racial stereotypes.
There is a lot of strong poetry in this issue. My two favorite poems are “Motel” by John Bennett and “The Ascension” by Chris Ellery. The motel in Bennett’s poem is not a real brick-and-mortar building, but a building of the mind that needs a good scrubbing:
When I wake at night, a guest
of the John Bennet Inn, I’m careful
not to curse the sloppy cleaning job
done behind the toilet in my bathroom,
because I’m the manager and staff,
and can predict what’s coming on the
comment cards at check out. . . .
Loneliness and unhappiness appear to be frequent guests at the John Bennett Inn. My favorite stanza is about the speaker needing a concierge to “jolt” him with questions such as: “How are you, sir? / Are you enjoying your time here? / Has your stay been satisfactory?” Good luck finding anyone who can honestly say they are satisfied with their personal motels.
Chris Ellery’s poem is about a twister bringing devastation to an unnamed stretch of highway. The speaker observes the wind flipping an 18-wheeler into a ditch, but then sees a “thing” in the pile of twisted metal: “But one of us / knew enough / to feel a pulse, / and it became / a man again.” The speaker and his or her friends provide comforting words to the man as rescue crews arrive, but they do not seem convinced of the man’s survival because “The whole cab / pushed his head / into the mud.” I love the structure of this poem. The stanzas are arranged like a twister or maybe a long line of backed traffic on a lonely, two-way highway. The words are few and simple, but they resonant with the power of the human spirit in the face of tragedy.
Concho River Review is full of literary gold, dear reader. All you have to do is jump in and dive for it.