cover image Nickel and Dime

Nickel and Dime

Gary Soto. University of New Mexico Press, $19.95 (197pp) ISBN 978-0-8263-2185-5

""Poetry is about people who suffer,"" says one of the characters in this compassionate, sharply etched portrait of three dispossessed Oakland men on the margins of American society. The book is arranged into three interconnected stories, opening as Roberto Silva, 33, loses his job as a security guard at a bank, duped by his boss into believing that his layoff is a sign of his bright future. Older guard Gus Hernandez doesn't take his own job so lightly, but it's only a matter of time before he suffers a similar uprooting when the bank cavalierly forces him into retirement. Poet Silver Mendez tries to make a living from his writing and fails; even his mother won't let her middle-aged son stay at her place. The once-promising but ever-hopeful Mendez crashes at friends' houses if he can; otherwise he sleeps in his car. He befriends the now homeless and nearly starving Roberto, and he notes that looking at Roberto is to ""stare into the watery eyes"" of his own future. Roberto functions in the book as a symbol as well as a character, his pathetic but ingenious attempts at entrepreneurism a result of his relentless optimism. In spite of hitting rock bottom, facing the bigotry and cruelty of cops and suspicious, fearful rich people, Roberto remains human, humane and himself. Soto, a National Book Award-nominated poet, prolific fiction writer (A Natural Man) and children's book author, is a versatile, unsentimental and clear storyteller, and his range of talents converge to illuminate the lives of these three Chicano men living in the shadows. (Mar.)