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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Collection of Tales Has a Distinctive Flavor : ENCHILADAS, RICE AND BEANS by Daniel Reveles ; Ballantine $9 paperback, 261 pages

November 18, 1994|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is a fictional meal, all right--nine courses, plus an aperitivo and a despedida-- but Daniel Reveles gets the menu a bit wrong. Enchiladas, rice and beans are the basics of Mexican cuisine.

This collection of stories is more like tortilla chips, guacamole and salsa--lightweight fare, if plenty tasty.

Reveles dares us to eat just one.

He sits us down in the plaza of Tecate, a small town just over the Baja California border a few miles east of Tijuana. With hospitable flourishes, he hands us a Jose Cuervo and signals for the mariachis to play more sweetly. Instead of "common cliches and stereotypes," he insists, "I want to introduce you to real Mexicans."

Then, as if we are hearing the gossip of Tecate directly from the balloon man, the fire eater or the Popsicle vendor who moonlights as a veterinarian, Reveles tells us about:

* El Gato, Tecate's version of Robin Hood, a crusading lawyer who keeps his mother in Mexico City supplied with Winchell's doughnuts from San Diego and with plants and flowers for the potholes that municipal crews never fix.

* " Senor Jeemy," an American furniture manufacturer who finds Mexico to be a paradise of low wages, high profits, compliant wives and spicy mistresses--until the ruinous devaluation of the peso in 1982.

* Dona Lala, the 100-year-old witch who knows what kind of "miracle" has enabled a group of farm laborers to quit work and still sport new clothes, canned food and jugs of mezcal --but isn't about to spill the frijoles.

* Big Caca, the corrupt border guard who wakes up one morning to find his 2,000-pound bull stranded on the roof of his barn.

* Rodolfo (Fito) Fernandez, who grows rich and powerful as an unintended result of the vow he takes on discovering that, while drunk, he has shot and killed his best friend.

* Sonya Avila, who explains to her ex-boyfriend's wife why, in Mexico, it's better to be the "other woman."

* Don Pedro Gonzalez Rosencranz, who dares to defy the superstition--involving a dropped knife--that has kept his ranch hands from sleeping in the bunkhouse.

* Faustino, the poor, love-struck youth whose friends bury a fake treasure in his yard and come to regret the joke.

* Teresa Martinez, who petitions the saints for a way to keep her husband from drinking up his paycheck before he gets home.

Wait a minute, we say. Aren't these exactly the kind of stereotypes that Reveles said he would avoid? These "real Mexicans" are warm, romantic, musical, religious, hard-working but a trifle disorganized--just as they are in the popular imagination. Don't we expect border guards to be corrupt, potholes to remain unfixed, wives to be chaste and husbands unfaithful, and fires to burn themselves out before the manana when the fire engine arrives?

"If you are an American reading this," Reveles admits, "you may find the chauvinism of the men and the submissiveness of the women somewhat exasperating. I do too."

But this disclaimer is just another of the author's flourishes. Reveles, a Los Angeles-born songwriter, TV director and documentary filmmaker who lives on a rancho outside Tecate, is a sophisticated man who chooses here to hide his sophistication (except for an occasional wink) in the interests of yarn-spinning.

The flavor of "Enchiladas, Rice and Beans" is close to that of John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row." A semi-magical place is populated with larger-than-life characters. Real problems--like those Steinbeck explored in "The Grapes of Wrath"--are acknowledged but kept firmly in the background.

Reveles serves up these stories bite by leisurely bite, garnished with metaphors and comic asides, as if we really have joined the lunch crowd at El Taco Contento (where the tacos might be made of calves' cheeks, tongues or eyes). As befits a border town where the 19th Century is jostling with the 21st, he blends shrewd, realistic observation with the conventions of the folk tale.

Is Tecate really like this? Reveles makes us want to visit and find out. His Mexicans, real or not, are a reproach to all those Anglos who voted for Proposition 187. Afraid of these people? For shame.

Daniel Reveles serves up these stories bite by leisurely bite, garnished with metaphors and comic asides, as if we really have joined the lunch crowd at El Taco Contento.

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