Beth Alvarado, who received an MFA from the University of Arizona, where she now teaches, grew up in America’s surreal midcentury West and Southwest—Oahu, San Diego, Tucson, Seattle, Grand Junction—where privileged white adventurers in search of modernity, a new wealth and the sun accidentally bumped sunburnt shoulders with migrant workers and poor people of all colors in search of just enough to get by.
“A swimming pool in the backyard, blue and unwavering. My father drinks too much whiskey. My mother’s heels click across the cold tile floors, telegraphing her displeasure.” Alvarado is eighteen, it is 1972, they live in Tuscon. Inevitably, perhaps, she becomes a hippie, she does drugs, she falls in love with a Mexican man.
The reader drifts with Alvarado through her memories, loosely chronological moments in time that she has transformed into short, page-long chapters. Inside Alvarado’s memory, like our own, some details stand out while seemingly important, relevant facts disappear. The scorching heat of the Southwest rises from the pages, a character as much as her harsh mother or her husband’s drug-consumed brother. She sees the children without shoes who “hopped from shadow to shadow as they followed their mothers to the store.”
There’s less reflection, more dreams, more histories, at first. Alvarado writes, “I was a traveler, only half in the world, recording, remembering what I could see, relying on images.” Now, Alvarado has the ability to put to words her feelings of in-betweenness, being stuck in the cross-cultural crossfires of white, Mexican and hippie life. But back then she didn’t, she didn’t care to. “Everything—gestures, facial expressions, sighs—required an act of translation. This feeling of disconnect was one I had come to prefer.”
The disconnect, the “floating” feeling of drugs and directionlessness, eventually solidifies for Alvarado, as she creeps toward the present. Her maternal feelings for both her own and other children and her disciplined drive to keep writing eventually ground her. But it is her ability to hold back from translating, to slip in the image rather than the analysis, that keeps the reader inside her memory. (Ella Christoph)
By Beth Alvarado
University of Iowa Press, 172 pages, $20