With "Speed Bumps," Gabriel Urza seems determined to resist every convention we've come to expect from the contemporary literary Western. Here you'll find no wide open spaces. This brutal and resonant story is set in Reno, Nevada, yet the narrator makes no mention of the Sierras looming to the West, nor the golden foothills to the North and East, nor the Truckee River surging through downtown. These bring him no solace. The closest we come to the natural sublime is a drug run, "the five-hour drive over the hill to Mendocino to pick up from three burned out hippies with a five-acre plantation in the mountains." Instead, Urza's sites of refuge and revelation are a now-demolished casino, a "busted ass excuse for a gym" equipped mainly with "five-gallon buckets filled with dirt," and the spidery crawl space beneath the narrator's afflicted Coleman house.
While many writers of the West seem reluctant to tackle class, Urza lays bare the emotional rifts that often yawn between the finer lines of class stratification, reduced-fee lunch versus free lunch, versus "the Mexican kids that didn't even get free lunch because they're illegal immigrants." His narrator admits his family is "always right on the border," broke but "never broke broke." Something like a white trash cowboy, he upcharges the ski and tennis teams for their weed.
Yet for its deviance and innovation within the genre, "Speed Bumps" is a story decidedly of the West. The boy's dearest treasure is a belt buckle adorned with "a chunk of turquoise on it the size of a tater tot," left behind by his father. His masculine ideal is some amalgam of Clint Eastwood and Walter White. Crucially it is masculinity, the perennial theme of literature of the American West, which drives this revenge fantasy. Individualism, idealism, and a painful sense of paternalism for his worn-thin mother, goad our narrator into one of the most brutal and flummoxing acts of vigilante heroism I've ever read.
We're constantly alerted of writers to watch these days, but Gabriel Urza is the real deal. Severe, unflinching and relentlessly compassionate, his voice is a vital new addition to Western regionalism, American literature, and beyond. Keep an eye out for his tremendous debut, a sprawling lyrical novel about nationalists and ex-pats in Spain's Basque country, coming soon from Henry Holt and Company.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn, winner of the Story Prize, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. Longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, Battleborn was named a best book of 2012 by the San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Time Out New York, and NPR.org.