There's a telling moment in one of the stories in Luis Alberto Urrea's The Water Museum, when two high school friends are talking about their mutual love for Velvet Underground. "You like Berlin?" asks one of the boys. "Lou Reed's best album, dude!" A lot of Reed's fans (including this one) would agree, but it's a controversial record — it's certainly one of the most depressing rock albums in history, heavily suffused with references to suicide, violence and drug abuse. It's a beautiful work of art that tells its listeners that as bad as things may be now, they can always get much, much worse.
The Water Museum isn't as hopeless or morbid as Berlin, but Urrea and Reed have at least one thing in common: They're both too honest to give the tales they tell artificially happy endings. And while not all of the 13 stories in Urrea's new collection are dire, they're all realistic and unsparing, as unflinching and hard-hitting as they are beautiful.
Most of the stories in The Water Museum take place in the American West and Southwest, from the rural Idaho of "Mountains Without Number" to sprawling Phoenix in "Amapola." Urrea's West is a contradiction: a region uncomfortable with its own growth, beset by drought, poverty, and clashes of identities. Take the San Diego of "The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery," where "Chicanos faced off against Mexicanos. Beaners versus rednecks. Everybody against the black brothers. And just forget about the Asians. ... Nobody liked nobody."
Very often, things end badly for the characters in Urrea's stories — sometimes with disappointment, and sometimes with violence. The most shocking story in the collection, "Amapola," starts sweetly, with a young man falling in love with his friend's little sister; her traditional father disapproves of the relationship. There are no indications that the romance will end well, but the twist ending is even more dramatic and horrifying than the reader would expect. It's a breathtaking story, tense and funny, until it collapses into terror and brutality.
"Young Man Blues" plays out similarly. The story starts with Joey going through the possessions of his father, Wyatt, a motorcycle gang member recently imprisoned for a shooting. Joey does odd jobs for a wealthy elderly couple; when a friend of his father's finds out, he demands Joey's help robbing them. The young man has to make a split-second decision, but it's clear that his options are both bad. The ending leaves the aftermath to the reader's imagination, which makes it even more frightening.
That's not to say there aren't moments of humor in The Water Museum. "The Sous Chefs of Iogüa" takes an unexpectedly funny look at racial tensions in a small Iowa town, where trouble starts on a commensurately small scale between white and Latino residents. And Urrea is supremely gifted at hilarious turns of phrase: In "The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery," a failed canoe trip leads to two friends sitting in a boat, "moored like a commemorative statue of two idiots setting out for an adventure." ("Okay," says one of them, "So we ain't Lewis and Clark.")
Neither the tragedy nor the humor would mean anything, though, if Urrea didn't craft his characters so convincingly, and with such love. What's even more remarkable is that he can do it in just a few paragraphs. "Carnations" is just under two pages, but it's heartbreaking nonetheless. When Urrea revisits the characters in the gorgeous "Welcome to the Water Museum," which deals with the effects of a drought on a working-class family, it makes the first story even more powerful. Urrea has always been an extremely gifted writer, but these two stories feel something like a revelation.
Reading The Water Museum is like listening to a great album on a long drive through what the band Modest Mouse called "the lonesome crowded west." Indeed, popular music is an omnipresent theme in the book; Urrea talks about artists from Depeche Mode to Canned Heat, from Nine Inch Nails to Alice Cooper. It's difficult to find comparisons to an author as original as Urrea, but you could say that he's kind of a country-punk Lorrie Moore, compassionate but hard-edged, a kind of literary badass who still believes in love, because sometimes, there's nothing much else to believe in. The Water Museum is a brilliant, powerful collection, and Luis Alberto Urrea is a master storyteller with a rock 'n' roll heart.