By Leo Ryan
The calendar is not a line, but a loop — Basilio Boullosa, I Know Why I Was Born
In Rafael Alavarez’ new book, Basilio Boullosa Stars In The Fountain Of Highlandtown time is not merely a loop, it is a mobius strip, where the past and the present are woven inextricably, neither ending nor beginning. The book is a collection of short stories, all featuring Basilio Boullosa, Alvarez’ literary alter ego.
The world was first introduced to Basilio in Alvarez’ seminal work, the award-winning The Fountain of Highlandtown, written twenty-three years ago. Interestingly, this story does not appear first in the collection as the stories are arranged in loose chronological order, a significant choice given Alvarez’ deftness at drawing his characters across the narrative in “not a line, but a loop.” It is in The Fountain that Basilio, living with his namesake and grandfather, is asked the question that informs the entire collection. “Why are you here?” Alvarez spends the rest of the book answering that question.
Perhaps at the outset, it is important to understand what this collection is not. Because Alvarez has a gift for rendering his beloved Baltimore and her inhabitants with mesmerizing and lyrical detail and authenticity, his fiction is sometimes described as being about Baltimore, or having Baltimore as a character. While the city certainly does figure prominently in the narrative, Alvarez’ work is first and foremost about people. The people in Alvarez’ stories live, love, cheat, work, drink, drug, die and most importantly hope in Baltimore, but the way they do all of this is not unique to their hometown. Indeed, even though Basilio goes to a diner to “sketch faces that didn’t exist anywhere else but Baltimore,” to view Alvarez’ work as Baltimore-centric places unfortunate limits on the stories and what they have to say.
Basilio and the characters Alvarez draws into his orbit, while they may seem overwhelmed by the events swirling about them, are in the end rendered noble by the mere fact of their humanity, an approach perhaps finding its roots in Alvarez’ Catholic education. Throughout the stories, what might be considered junk, from the contents of Basilio’s sea bag in “Aunt Lola”, to Orlo’s junk shop and the treasures it yields, to pennies turned into art, Alvarez constantly reminds the reader that what might seem ordinary and discarded can indeed be beautiful.
These transformations (or perhaps Transfigurations, the name of Basilio’s Catholic high school) take place across generations. Time in Basilio’s world is not so much measured as it is felt, each generation, each tradition leaving a mark on the next. Flying Beatle dolls and cultures collide disrupting Christmas Eve dinner, prompting Basilio’s grandfather to ask, “What are we? Americans?” Of course they are. An iridescent clock over Bolewicki’s appliance store reminds us that “It’s not too late, it’s only….” For Alvarez’ characters, redemption is always possible. Even a jilted lover, who ruins his own Christmas by getting so drunk he misses his date with his girlfriend, can save the day for a young Basilio by assuaging the loss of a favorite toy with a gift of whimsy.
Time is not always kind to Alvarez’ characters. In “A Banquet of Onions” Alvarez laments the loss of a sense of communal obligation, which has been replaced by cold “containerized“ selfishness which ultimately condemns us all. This stark individualism, the ugly obverse of the pioneer spirit, leads us to a place where the sacred is discarded, even as an old nun reminds us of what we have lost. Basilio inserts himself into the past, even as it heads for destruction in the name of progress.
In “Aunt Lola,” Basilio reaches back across the generations to reinvigorate an old woman, finding with her and in her value in what once was. He tells his Aunt, “…hold onto your house Aunt Lol. It’s going to be worth a lot of money….” She responds by telling Basilio she’s going right from her home to the funeral home. The gentrification of the old neighborhood will come too late for Aunt Lola, but for those who recognize the value and nobility of the struggles of the last generation, Bolewicki’s clock tells more than just the time.
In addition to exploring these broader themes, Alvarez also supplies stories that are deeply and almost achingly personal. In “Basilio and Grandpop and Nieves,” Basilio falls under the spell of an illicit seduction which threatens to destroy Macon Street. The object of his desire is Nieves, a distant cousin from the Old World. His infatuation with Nieves is so destructive that, “No one wanted the paintings that Nieves had inspired during her brief stay on Macon Street….” After Nieves left, narrowly escaping the legal consequences of her addiction, “…Basilio began a new series based on the stories Nieves had told him, tales that stung him in the way a 14-year-old girl sticks pins in her thighs just to know she’s alive.”
“Nine Innings In Baltimore” begins with a confession. “How sick Basilio had become of Basilio”. Realizing that his wife, his Grandfather and a lack of talent are not his problems, Basilio finally confesses to himself what others knew. Alcohol is his problem. When he meets his tired wife at Memorial Stadium to share his epiphany and beg for another chance, he tells Trudy, “I’ve changed.” In a more contrived narrative the long suffering spouse might embrace the penitent and begin life happily ever after. Instead, Trudy replies, “You showed up in the eighth inning.” In those seven words Alvarez conveys the complexity and pain of a disintegrating relationship with amazing economy and clarity.
It is perhaps Baltimore’s worst kept literary secret that Alvarez writes deeply resonant stories. Many of these stories have been previously published, perhaps leading one to question the value of this new book as a contribution to his oeuvre. While it is true that all good literature is served well by multiple readings, this collection does more than that. The collection of the stories in one place, and the order in which they are arranged, draws new truth from them. Themes first introduced in the titular story are explored throughout the body of Alvarez’ treatment of Basilio in a way that allows the reader a fuller appreciation of what Alvarez is telling us through and about him.
In The Fountain of Highlandtown Alvarez describes the hole Basilion cut in the roof his grandfather’s row house on Macon Street. Through the hole, Basilio sees the world outside, and the world outside can see into the heart of East Baltimore. With this new collection of stories, the hole gets a little bigger, and the view gets just that much more clear.
Leo Ryan grew up in East Baltimore and was educated in Catholic schools. Widely read and widely respected, Ryan now lives in Towson though his heart has never stopped yearning for the Holy Land of his youth. He can often be found at G&A Restaurant on Eastern Avenue having chili dogs with the works for breakfast.
Feature photo: Sean Scheidt