FEW collections of stories open with such breathtaking charm as Barry Gifford's latest. "I am a funambulist. I was trained as a ropewalker, or ropedancer, from my third birthday, and I performed with my parents, the Dancing Ciegas, until they plunged to their deaths from a high wire when I was sixteen years old. Following this tragedy, I made a decision to stop performing. That was forty years ago."
The orphan resides in the Hotel Los Regalos de los Dios in the Mexican port city of Veracruz, where he works as a boxcar cleaner. He describes his present form of funambulism as solely "of a figurative, even metaphorical nature, a demonstration consisting solely of mental agility."
"I became an observer and eventually a recorder of events, evidence of which defines as a funambulist each of us who dares to take a step," he says. The stories gathered in "The Stars Above Veracruz," the Ropedancer promises, are "among the most interesting I have heard, remembered and written down."
Before they begin, however, a gruesome poem flags that they are not going to be pretty:
once shot a stranger
in Ciudad Chihuahua
to settle a bet
whether a dying man
Fierro predicted the
The first story, "The Law of Affection," is set on a Honduran island among the hard-boiled descendants of pirates, one of whom has shot another at a picnic. An islander named Spurgeon Bush explains to the narrator, a gringo, why this was not a problem. Bush, writes Gifford, "stood up and tucked the silver-plated .38 into his waist-band. He was wearing powder-blue beltless slacks and a jungle-green guayabera. Spurgeon was not particularly tall, but he was stocky with hands like meat cleavers. His skin was what they called on the island pardo, mud brown, and his face was riddled with pockmarks. He had a deep scar on his nose, shaped like an anchor.
"Spurgeon Bush smiled at me again and laid a meat cleaver on one of my shoulders.
" 'Sobrino,' he said, 'nobody liked George Morgan.' "
The next story, "After Hours at La Chinita," is set in a seedy Los Angeles motel, where receptionist Vermillion Chaney, in self-defense, shoots a john who had just been beating and strangling a prostitute. Twenty years later, his ghost appears to the now elderly and blind Vermillion.
" 'Didn't shoot you on purpose,' she said.
" 'What you mean, didn't do it on purpose?' said Ray. 'That was on purpose as possible to be. You shot me three times, once in the back.'
" 'Pistol felt light as a feather in my hand.' "
"Almost Oriental," nearly a novella, is a labyrinthine descent into the magical noir. It is a Stanford University professor's bizarre adventure while researching a book in Romania, told with jarring jumps across space and time, abrupt turns and dead-ends. The dead converse with the living, among whom are spies, drunks, thugs, gypsies, Nazis, Hungarians, Ukrainians and even a nightclub Count Dracula.
Each of the stories is rooted in a different locale, with datelines as far afield as Chicago, Paris and New Zealand. The title story takes place not in Veracruz, but in Mexico City. "The Stars Above Veracruz," it turns out, refers to the perfume worn by the Eurasian ex-girlfriend of the narrator. The gardenia-laden scent "did not so much sweeten or adorn as seem to inhabit her skin."
In the course of the story, we learn that this woman painstakingly "tweezed her eyebrows every morning even if she were hungover." The narrator left her in San Francisco because, "I never could tolerate for very long a woman who drank too much." In this slip of a story, set in a bullfighters' bar, the narrator quaffs his beer as a one-legged man comes in and shoots himself in the head.
Although Gifford's writing can be sparklingly poetic, these pieces are often violent to the point of seeming cartoonish. Yet there is much to admire in these stories, every one evidence of a powerful and playful imagination.
In "The God of Birds," a boy in a San Francisco barbershop becomes lost in a magazine article about hunting wolves with a golden eagle, a narrative that soars and then plunges, as if on wings itself. In "One Leg," what might have been little more than a grotesque anecdote ends with a gorgeous, high-wire arabesque of a flip. And in "Dancing With Fidel," a gangster by the name of Vic Victor entices three tourists taking in the Miami Beach sun to hop a flight to Cuba. It is 1960. Speeding through the night in a Cadillac taxi, one of the trio wonders not if she can trust their host, but whether she has any choice. One can almost feel the silky slither in Vic Victor's answer: " 'Of course you do, Mary,' he said. 'You always have a choice. It's just that sometimes it's better to let things happen.' " *