The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue
By Manuel Muñoz. Algonquin, $12.95.
Almost a novel in stories, Muñoz’s second book of ten interconnected tales walks through the lives of a group of people living in California’s Central Valley, in and around Fresno. Most of the stories seem to take place just before or right after a pivotal event happens. The first story, “Lindo Y Querido,” shows the effects of a fatal motorcycle accident on the dead boy’s mother. Another story forces a young single father to come home after his partner dies unexpectedly. In “The Heart Finds Its Own Conclusion” a young woman awaits her runaway cousin’s return. Three triplets are introduced, each with a different destiny, and a father sinks all of his hopes and savings into a faith healer to save his sick and injured child.
Several of the stories feature young men dealing with their sexuality and the homophobia of others as they try to fit in to changing cultural mores. Because of these themes—parent and child, assimilating into society, sexuality, and identity—the stories are classified as material for young readers, though that doesn’t denigrate the work’s sophistication or limit its accessibility to all readers.
All of Muñoz’s stories evoke melancholy with a slow burn. They show the rich, complicated inner lives of his subjects through the tangled web of family, love, responsibility and desire. These are not grand, sweeping tales of adventure and intrigue, but rather everyday stories full of quiet moments in the lives of the Mexican-Americans, immigrants and blue-collar dreamers in California. They inch along, touching on jealousies, tragedies and the workaday drama in every life.
There will be inevitable comparisons, because of Muñoz’s style, subject and ethnicity, to masters such as Junot Diaz or Gary Soto, but Muñoz lacks their consummate ability to draw a story out of the ether and breathe life into it fully. Like his first collection of stories, Zigzagger, Faith Healer is largely concerned with family secrets and sexuality. Muñoz writes with tremendous restraint, allowing his stories to move along quietly and the themes to crawl out of the text. And because these tales bookend, rather than center on, dramatic events, the sense of immediacy is more pastel and hushed.—Beth Dugan