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Book Review

Trio of Tales Explores Hope in Hapless World of Have-Nots

NICKEL AND DIME; by Gary Soto; University of New Mexico Press, $29.95, 190 pages


Gary Soto has a knack for telling stories that shimmer. His latest, an interlocking series of novellas called "Nickel and Dime," focuses on three Mexican American men who live beneath the radar, outside the hyped-up realm of Internet sweepstakes, lotto fever and instant millionaires.

The protagonist of Soto's first novella, "We Ain't Asking Much," is Roberto Silva, whose days as a security guard at Oakland's Walnut Bank are numbered. But Roberto, a naive soul, doesn't comprehend his downsizing is a cost-cutting move, latching on instead to the shark-toothed bank manager's assessment of his prospects: "His life seemed to hang in delicate balance between one paycheck and the next. Now Mr. Wallace was saying he had a future, an impression he had held about himself all along."

Elated, Roberto scoops up his severance, taunts Gus, the bank's older remaining guard, and goes home anticipating the arrival of more good fortune. But like people waiting for their Publishers Clearing House checks to arrive, Roberto is sorely disappointed. He is soon evicted from his apartment and winds up in an abandoned, rodent-infested Quonset hut. Despite a series of hapless schemes that take him to the richly appointed homes of the Piedmont hills, Roberto's destiny seems to be writ large on his wasted soul--homelessness, degradation, arrest.

The second novella, "Literary Life," is set several months later. Roberto, still hopeful, encounters Silver Mendez when the two men share a mattress outside the condo of one of Silver's erstwhile Chicano activist friends, now a yuppito photographer. Silver and Roberto Silva share not only the echo of a monetary name but also a growing sense that, despite differences in education and backgrounds, they are indeed kindred spirits.

And while Silver's mediocre poetry would appear far from the author's own accomplishments (which include a dozen poetry books, 14 prose collections and two plays), Soto captures his bitterness and longing for "normalcy" with sensitivity and insight: "Silver wished he could join the shoppers . . . buy something frivolous, a single rose or an ice cream cone. He was tired of his years of drifting. He aimed to change his life since his kind--those devoted to the Chicano movimiento--were disappearing. He had lost 13 pounds to prove that he was disappearing."

Although at times extremely funny, "Nickel and Dime" does not spare the reader the caustic realities of these men's lives. For them, hope comes in small packages, the smallest but most transcendent of which belongs to the aging guard at Walnut Bank. In "The Untimely Passing of the Clock Radio," the book's third section, Soto brings us full circle to consider Gus, who waits patiently for retirement, "his patience a sort of gift for not wanting much from life."

Yet life holds many surprises for this highly moral, quietly heroic man, not the least of which is the return of Roberto, who he takes in in an act of charity that is redemptive as well as moving: "Wasn't it true that Guadalupe Contreras had allowed [Gus] to stay at his apartment when he first arrived from Mexico? Who could say he was stingy and without concern for a fellow Latino? [Gus] chewed a thumbnail to a bloody wound in discovering this, his own tenderness."

In the hands of a lesser writer, "Nickel and Dime" could have been a screed against the haves by the have-nots. But Soto, through a poetic sensibility that has earned him praise--including Guggenheim and NEA fellowships--allows his truths to emerge more organically, his characters to shine all the brighter when viewed against the backdrop of our time-honored, often ruinous obsession with getting and having.

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