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The Year of Living Famously (Finally) : For Almost Two Decades, Dagoberto Gilb Could No Get Published. His Laborers and Dreamers, Drifting Across the Southwest Landscape, Went Undiscovered, Until He Hooked Up With a University Press. Then It Started Raining Literary Prizes.

November 12, 1995|Lisa Broadwater | Lisa Broadwater is a writer living in Dallas. Her last piece for the magazine was on children's book author William Joyce. and

"Before, you're writing and you feel like you're taking this leap. And you don't know if you're going to land or not; you're just in the air. And the awards came, and I landed in New York.

"Poof!" he says, laughing. 'It was sort of amazing. I was still in shock. You hit bottom, and the bottom turns into the top. It was definitely odd. New Mexico was not New York."

And it wasn't over. This year, Gilb won the Guggenheim.

All he really wished for was something like a clear, unpolluted understanding. Clear? Maybe even more than that. Mickey was alert for a directive issued from God or His Equivalent. A bush. A special twinkle in the sky. A voicelike shaking underfoot. Anything like that. Mickey did not want messiahhood, prophethood, sainthood. Mickey was simple in this: He wanted one truth that was, at least, true. He could get healthy off that. Like aspirin for the headache, Alka-Seltzer for the stomach, socks for cold feet.

From "The Last Residence of Mickey Acuna"

Gilb has a big mouth, which he doesn't hesitate to shoot off when he's provoked. Over the years, he's been provoked a lot. Mostly by the so-called Plimpton set (it was George Plimpton who first dubbed him too colloquial) and their buddies in the creative-writing world. There was that especially memorable panel discussion at the University of Houston where he went head to head with poet (and Paris Review poetry editor) Richard Howard. Not to mention that running feud with Texas Observer editor Lou Dubose. He's also had his gripes with other magazine types, with his Chicano brethren, with his birthplace. The running theme: a lack of respect.

He spent years trying to write for Texas Monthly. He pitched idea after idea. He was successful--once. A second story was accepted, then held for a year (he threatened to take the magazine to small-claims court over that one). A few got edited into oblivion. All involved much angry exchange. The rift continues to baffle Gilb, primarily because Texas Monthly editor Gregory Curtis was one of the first people to praise his work.

Gilb doesn't understand why, even after he won all those awards, he wasn't Texas Monthly material. The only answer he could come up with was that the magazine wasn't interested in the Mexican American experience.

Curtis sees things differently. The problem, he says, is more simple than that:

"We don't print fiction. There's a lot of straightforward reporting that goes into our stories. I think Doug is a really good writer, but he's not a reporter. If I'm remembering rightly, the problems we had with the stories were that they weren't reported; they were out of his own experience and I didn't think were telling enough as they were."

Ironically, Texas Monthly's September cover story listed Gilb among its 20 "most impressive, intriguing and influential Texans of 1995." But don't expect Gilb to return the favor. When asked if he'd write for the magazine now, he says simply: "They can kiss my a - -."

Earlier this year, Gilb was contacted by the New Yorker, which he says was interested in including him in its summer fiction issue. He thought about putting something together for them, but his body, he says, wouldn't let him do it: "I just didn't care enough. I'm not gonna jump just because they paid attention now."

Some of Gilb's peers--primarily the ones he hasn't pissed off--consider his bluster a welcome addition to the scene.

"Writing is such a timid little fluttery world," says Austin-based author Sarah Bird. "Dagoberto is the perfect antidote to the world that rules writing out here, and that's the Texas Monthly mentality. Texas Monthly is about status, it's about a very acute kind of class awareness and getting at the high side of that. And that's everything Dagoberto is not.

"If he thinks there's an injustice, he pursues it and pursues it. And if that means calling up a magazine editor and saying, 'I'm gonna kick your a - -,' he'll do it.... Quite frankly, it would be a better world if a lot of those editors got their butts kicked regularly."

Just as he had a love-hate relationship with the New York literati, there was a time when Gilb was miserably uncomfortable with his cultural identity.

"I wanted to be German and smart," he says. "As a kid, you work out these stereotypes, and I was totally ashamed. Being smart was not being Mexican. I hate to admit it, but it was true. It's what they do to your brain. It's total bulls - - -.

"I had a German philosopher phase: I wanted to be half-breed Hegel. I used to read a lot of half-breed Indian novels. I loved those stories 'cause that's how I felt all my life: not anything; not this or that."

Today, although Gilb has come to terms with his heritage, he--along with many of his peers--is ambivalent about being labeled a "Chicano author" or "Southwestern voice."

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