In “Pilot. Copilot. Writer,” the first story in Austin, Texas-based Manuel Gonzales’ debut collection, a plane hijacked for no apparent reason circles Dallas for 20 years. Anyone who’s flown anywhere recently knows that sitting in economy class for just a few hours is nightmare aplenty, of course. But the horror that Gonzales really wants to exploit is terrestrial society’s loss of interest in the captives after only a week of vigils and breathless news reports. The passengers, though they banded together initially, have grown increasingly estranged from one another, while our narrator has developed hawk-like eyesight that allows him the painful sight of his now re-married wife going about her daily life with nary a glance skyward. After years of the plane’s “perfect unmovement” he has even begun to dread a return to solid ground.
Randomness, cruelty, isolation, transmogrification, unknown or unseen menaces and the opacity of others’ intentions are some of the common elements running through Gonzales’ stories, which he cuts with an astringent wit. The bar joke-length “Cash to a Killing,” about a couple of hit men forced to dig up the guy they just buried when one of them discovers his wallet is missing, is outright hilarious.
The longer stories are all narrated in the first person by males who are shuttered in some way, who struggle to see outside their immediate purview for reasons ranging from cluelessness to arrogance to being a zombie. The narrator of the title story works in miniaturization—though he can’t disclose what he makes or how small he makes it. When he inadvertently shrinks his wife to the size of a coffee mug he is taken aback by her fury then angered when she cheats with a shrunken colleague. After she launches a series of inventive attacks, the two descend into all-out war in which her smallness unexpectedly gives her the upper hand.
Animals and monsters, or a combination of the two, make frequent appearances. Gonzales demonstrates his attunement to the cultural zeitgeist by featuring zombies in two stories—though one, “Escape from the Mall,” strikes me as the book’s weakest—and werewolves and unicorns in two others. When Margaret Atwood announced to George Stroumboulopoulis recently that “no zombie story is ever told from the point of view of the zombie” (their having no brains posing obvious impediments language-wise), she clearly hadn’t read “All of Me,” which is indeed narrated by a zombie who tries, Dexter-like, to keep things together for the sake of a woman he admires at his office.
Borges’ influence is apparent in both Gonzales’ magic realist style and in his “factual” portrayals of fake lives. In “The Disappearance of the Sebali Tribe,” two men pull an elaborate anthropological hoax on their prestigious American universities before disappearing without a trace. “The Artist’s Voice” is presented as a case study about a classical music composer whose creative output seems paradoxically tied to his physical deterioration. A series of brief faux biographies, each subtitled “A Meritorious Life,” profiles men with unusual ambitions and abilities ranging from DIY organ replacement to a native ability to speak extinct languages.
“One-Horned & Wild-Eyed,” seems the fullest expression of Gonzales’ talents and preoccupations. In it, a layabout suburbanite named Ralph shows his friend Mano an animal he bought resembling a “pearlescent undersized horse or overlarge goat” that he claims is a unicorn. Although Mano is initially skeptical, he soon finds himself obsessed the beast, which seems to wield a mysterious, sinister power over the two men.
The impact of these stories can be tempered by Gonzales’ ironic distance, but the intelligence and versatility of his writing suggests he could, and perhaps should, take it to darker, longer places.