At a local Chicano restaurant in Austin, Tex., Dagoberto Gilb munches on tortillas, refried beans and runny eggs. Vibrant colors dance above his head, the swirling blues and reds and yellows of a mural on the wall. Suddenly, a lithe and lovely young woman--chestnut eyes, black silky hair, incandescent smile--squeezes behind him to use the pay phone. Gilb's face lights up.
"We're going listen if you call from this phone," he tells her, then laughs--hearty, broad, bouncy and thoroughly contagious.
"Oh, it's not going to be exciting," the girl says, gamely chuckling.
"Aww, man," Gilb not so quietly exclaims. "Well, I'll loan you a quarter if you call someone exciting, so I can listen to that." He belts out another hoarse, boisterous cackle. The girl again giggles, though a bit more apprehensively this time. Gilb relents, lets the woman make her call. If the author has learned anything in the 50 years he's been on this planet, it's when to rein in his irrepressible personality. Without a doubt, the guy's got energy, and nothing revs him up like the opposite sex. According to Gilb, the appreciation is mutual.
"Most people like me," he says with affable bravado, gesticulating outward with his large callused palms. "Because I'm a nut. And they have a fun time." Still, for Gilb, "most people" usually means women, the half of the human race that, according to the Mexican-American author, has been a source of mucho pleasure and pain.
"I like women," he says. "I love women. To me, guys are boring because they seem much more limited. Women are more interesting--and I don't just mean that as a man. They seem to read more. They have more things going on." It was Gilb's appreciation of the female sex that inspired his second collection of short stories, Woodcuts of Women. Like his first collection, The Magic of Blood (Unive. of New Mexico, 1993; Grove paperback, 1994), Woodcuts explores the lives of working-class, southwestern Chicano men. Whereas Magic largely examined such men's power struggles in the workplace, Woodcuts delves deeper into conflicts between the sexes. A slender compilation of 10 tales, Woodcuts is as richly poetic and full of stream-of-consciousness detours and imagistic digressions as his previous work, which also includes a novel, the humorously offbeat The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña (Grove, 1994), about a group of emotionally crippled men living in an El Paso YMCA.
Forgoing the testosterone-packed antics of that novel, Woodcuts begins with a sweet and straightforward story, "Maria de Covina," concerning a young Mexican-American salesman who emphatically proclaims to, yes, "love women"--so much so that it gets him fired from a department store. In contrast to "Maria de Covina" and its simple narrative realism is the more oblique but beautiful final selection, "Snow," about a successful Chicano writer who hobnobs with Norman Mailer in Manhattan while worrying about his pregnant girlfriend back in Texas. As with the best fiction in The Magic of Blood, "Snow" is largely impressionistic, achieving its emotional impact from an accumulation of vivid, idiosyncratic observations. Another even more surreal selection is "Bottoms," a baroquely comic account of a lonely heterosexual author trying to review a pornographic gay novel while being pursued by an increasingly large, lusty female fan. Most of the stories opt for a less fantastic narrative style, although Gilb prefers stylistically eclectic, autobiographically influenced inventions like "Snow."
" 'Snow' is sort of a weird one," he says. "But it's a direction that I'm taking with my fiction in that it's closer to nonfiction. And I'm curious to see where it takes me."
Gilb is the first to admit that personal experience has always been his creative wellspring. Yet he resists revealing too much about his private life, especially his childhood. What he will say is that he grew up in Los Angeles during the 1950s and '60s, raised by a Chicano mother who divorced his German father soon after Dagoberto was born. Gilb describes his mother as wild and charming and terribly unsettled. "I was always on my own," he says. "I was the adult." When he was a teenager, she married an electrician, and Gilb and his mother became even more estranged. "She had to marry him," he says. "She was essentially escaping. And I didn't like him, so I hit the road." Occasionally coming home to sleep, he befriended other troubled kids, took drugs and worked in factories until graduating from high school.
To avoid the Vietnam War, Gilb enrolled in the University of California, where he fell in with the free-loving lefties of the burgeoning counterculture. At the university, the previously mediocre student discovered that he loved reading, learning and, perhaps less surprisingly, debating issues. "I was not a high school ace," he says. "But when I got to college, I loved it. It changed my life. I didn't know anything and every class I took was totally exciting to me. Books were like girls. I just went nuts over books."
Gilb saw college as his salvation, believing it would lead to a prestigious white-collar career. Yet when he graduated, with a masters in philosophy and religion, jobs were not forthcoming. He went to interviews, but found his forceful and confrontational personality, an asset on city streets, to be a stumbling block for white-collar employers. "I remember applying to be a copy editor at an El Paso newspaper," he recalls. "I went in to see the editor, talking like I do, 'Yak, yak, yak.' And I sense he's interested in hiring me, thinks that I could be a good reporter. So we get into an elevator and he introduces me to this guy, but it's so I can deliver newspapers! I had credentials, man, they would still look at me and say, I'm not hiring you.
"I came in as a real innocent, a true believer in school as the key to success," he continues. "So when I got out, fairly soon after my first son was born, I looked for good jobs, thinking I was totally qualified, but I never got one. But I'd go to a construction site and, boom, I'd be hired. So I just moved that way, easy. And it's not that I wanted it. I didn't."
Gilb dreamed of becoming a novelist, and somehow he made time for writing. His first novel, unpublished and self-admittedly bad, reflected his experiences in the counterculture. While finishing it, he heard about "some big writer" visiting El Paso, one who specialized in short fiction about working-class guys. The "big writer" turned out to be Raymond Carver, who was in town teaching a course. Gilb sought out a few of his books. "I read them and went, 'This isn't working class,'" he recalls, laughing. " 'They want working class, I'll give them working class.'" So Gilb pulled out a notebook and penned his first short story, "Down in a West Texas Town," a haunting piece about vagabond junkies. He left the story in Carver's mailbox. The renowned writer read it and told Gilb he would get him into Iowa's graduate writing program. Having never heard of it, Gilb declined, disappointed that was the best Carver could do. "I didn't know what Iowa was, and I didn't care," Gilb says. "I was like, why would I want to go to school? I was married. I had kids. I worked. I had a life. And I was writing. I didn't understand the meaning of what he was saying."
Even so, the validation from Carver encouraged Gilb to continue writing short fiction, much of it inspired by his experiences as a construction worker and carpenter. He started sending stories out to literary magazines. "Down in a West Texas Town" was published in Puerto Del Sol. He sent the next one, "Desperado," about a drug dealer left by his girlfriend to care for their baby boy, to Wendy Lesser, the editor of the Threepenny Review. Although she didn't publish it, she liked it and told him to send another. He sent "Where the Sun Don't Shine," a realistic account of a construction worker fired by an abusive boss. Lesser published it.
"I'd send them to the wind and when I'd hit it, I'd always hit in San Francisco, where there wasn't a big university writing program," Gilb says of his initial publishing successes. "Wendy Lesser was my angel. She's a genius. She's tough, and she's totally opinionated. She liked me and published my work over the transom. It was unagented, unrepresented, and nobody told her to read it. I dropped the story off in a slush pile at 6:30 in the morning on my way to construction work."
The Threepenny Review continued publishing Gilb's work over the years, and other literary magazines soon followed. As Gilb's small-press successes stacked up, so did his literary awards. In 1984, he received the James D. Phelan Award (part of the Jackson-Phelan Awards), a prize granted to native Californian writers, making him, according to Gilb, the first Los Angeles resident to win the award in its 50-year history. In 1988, he was made a Dobie Paisano Fellow and, in 1992, he received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in creative writing. By then, he also had his first literary agent, Ellen Levine. Yet despite his accomplishments, he couldn't nab a New York book contract.
"I couldn't understand why I was unable to get New York publishers interested in me," he says. "Is there a single other high-rise construction worker in this country that has published one story? I had published 20 stories, over 500 pages, in some of the best literary magazines in the country. You want publicity, come and take pictures of me working. But they would not pay attention. So I just gave up. I quit. And that's when it changed."
The year was 1992. Gilb had just received his NEA fellowship, and he had finished his second novel, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, which his agent was unable to sell. So he fired his agent, and began considering offers from small university presses. "I said the hell with New York," he explains. "They're never going to publish me, but I have two collections' worth of
short stories, possibly three. I had queries over the years from medium-size presses, one of them being New Mexico. But my dream was always to be published in New York like a real writer. That was my attitude. Yet at that point I decided to give the work away, like archives, to New Mexico. And about three weeks into it, I'm still holding back the first half of these stories for another collection, looking for a new agent to sell it, and I think, you know what, fuck it, I'm going to give it all to New Mexico. One big book. We yank out a hundred pages. And that becomes The Magic of Blood."
After Magic's publication in 1993, Gilb signed up with a new agent, Kim Witherspoon. A month later, he received a Whiting Award, and within a year The Magic of Blood had won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Yet Gilb still couldn't sell Mickey Acuña a New York press. Witherspoon sent the book around, but the rejections piled up, citing the story as too odd or depressing. Again fed up, Gilb told Witherspoon to give New York two more weeks or he'd turn the novel over to the University of New Mexico Press. "They really wanted it," he says. "And they did a great job with The Magic of Blood. But by the end of the two-week period, I mean the very last day, I get a call from Kim telling me that Morgan Entrekin [Grove's executive publisher and Gilb's current editor] wants to publish it. She gives me a $25,000 figure and I'm shocked, stunned I even got a dime. She tells me he didn't know I had a Whiting, didn't know anything about my stories, but he loves the novel. Suddenly, my whole world changed: Morgan came into my life."
Just after the publication of Mickey Acuña, Gilb won a 1995 Guggenheim Foundation Award for fiction. Since then, he has begun teaching creative writing at the Southwest State University in San Marcos, churned out a series of essays (including an extremely moving piece about his late mother published in the New Yorker last March), and worked on recovering from an emotionally exhaustive breakup with a "stunning, brilliant and complicated" woman. He says that Woodcuts is the result of the exorcism of that relationship's demons. Not surprisingly, Gilb, who is currently writing a novel about his mother based on the New Yorker essay, has a specific kind of reader in mind.
"Women!" he says, arms outstretched, ready to give all takers a great big bear hug. "I want women to read it. Even if they think it's by a man, although I don't think of myself that way. To me, I'm nothing but a very macho lesbian."
Bahr is a New York-based writer who contributes to numerous publications, including the New York Times, Poets &Writers, the Advocate, and US Weekly.