Review: Mundo Cruel, by Luis Negrón

Mundo-Cruel>>Published: March 2013

>>Finally got around to it: February 2014

The pastor looked at me with the prophet-look he knew how to put on. I saw him look at me with anger and then his eyes saw my slutty face. Full of pleasure upon seeing me look at him that way, he revealed his rage to me. I saw his dark thick body through his damp white clothes. I saw the hairs on his wet arms, close to his skin. I saw that he saw that I saw what he saw. I saw through his white pants how inside his white cotton jockey shorts, he grew large. I saw the brothers on the shore fascinated with my beauty, looking at me. I saw Papi’s face in the distance, looking at me look. This boy is a monster, his face said. I saw Mami look at my monstrosity in Papi’s face. I turned my back on my father and my mother and looked again at that thing that was already curving over the preacher’s thigh when he immersed me in the water.

The sound of the water pressed against my ears. Among the rocks there was a beer can. Some river shrimp clung to an old tennis shoe. I saw the preacher’s feet in his blue rubber flip-flops. Then he took me out of the water and held me for a second in his arms. “You are clean,” he said to me, and winked.

***

The nine stories in Luis Negrón’s collection Mundo Cruel are, at first blush, an adroit, often sarcastic grouping of voices and personalities, each another avenue in, another set of eyes on the lives and sexual goings-on occurring in a small community in Puerto Rico—a place where homosexuality, or indeed anything sexually removed from the paint-by-numbers standard, is met with hesitation, fear, revulsion, and in many cases, violence. However, a deeper dive into Negrón’s writing strips clean the darkly comic undertones of many of these lean, economical narratives, revealing a pastiche of negativity brewing in even the most outwardly tepid of exchanges.

In “The Chosen One,” a young boy, beloved by his mother and despised by his brothers and father, falls in love with the boys and men of his church and community. “The Vampire of Moca” is a story of an at first forbidden, then unfortunately lost connection as a landlord falls in lust with his new tenant—a man who says he is straight (and is rather concerned with keeping up appearances regarding his perceived masculinity), yet is eventually claimed by the landlord’s competition.

The next three stories—“For Guayama,” “La Edwin,” and “Junito”—break form with the others in this collection. “For Guayama” is an epistolary tale, with the narrator writing letters to a friend and likely former lover regarding the pressing need for money to care for and stuff a beloved dead dog so that it may live on—in a manner of speaking.

“La Edwin” is the first of two one-sided phone conversations. It’s about a friend seemingly unwilling to commit emotionally to their sexuality and getting caught up with a little “Che Guevara” while at university:

Yeah, girl, since they can’t liberate the motherland, they’re just going to liberate themselves sexually.

“Junito” is the second one-sided phone conversation. One friend is preparing to leave the country to find work in America—Boston, specifically—in order to extricate himself from the toxicity of his homeland. Though he is straight and has a wife and kids, his friend—the unheard, unseen voice on the other end of the phone—is gay and works in the government. The first friend urges the second to abandon his current life and join them in America, where he will be less at risk for simply being who he is.

The story “Botella” is the most unexpectedly hilarious of the bunch—not at all because of the comedy of the scenario in which a man is tossed out of his home by his wife for reasons never outright stated (though likely having something to do with him sleeping around on her and getting frequent blow jobs from a number of different men), but because of the perfunctory, deadpan writing:

The bag was on top of the table and he had opened it and asked me about the bleach and I said it was to clean myself afterwards, that it kills the AIDS and he tells me that they killed Paco and that they poured bleach all over him, and he asks me if I knew anything about that and I say no, I don’t, that it was a coincidence.

He looked at me funny and then I strangled him with a cable so he wouldn’t talk.

“So Many: Or On How the Wagging Tongue Sometimes Can Cast a Spell” was unexpectedly the most unsettling story in the collection. It consists entirely of two gossiping mothers, mid-upper crust, discussing the possibility that the son of another mother might be gay, and what a damning thing that must be—and even more damning in their eyes, that the mother in question wasn’t ashamed of her own son’s possible sexuality.

The final two stories in the collection, “The Garden” and “Mundo Cruel”, were also I felt the weakest in the bunch—the former more than the latter. While “The Garden” touched upon a three-way love with a man dying of AIDS, “Mundo Cruel” took a hard surrealist turn and proposed a world where homophobia had come to a sudden end, and how some, without the fear of oppression to drive them to fight, to give them meaning, became suddenly concerned as to their place in the world.

The strength of this collection, which “So Many” expertly drives home, is its ability to reveal larger atrocities and social problems through casual, seemingly banal yet malevolent exchanges. Many of the individuals given life in Negrón’s collection are unobtrusive with their hatred, which makes it all the more uncomfortable; in the author’s portrayal of Puerto Rico, homophobia has seeped so deeply into the social strata that the detestable nature of those who’ve embraced their nascent hatred is commonplace and without remorse.

While the collection itself is a bit on the slight side, that shouldn’t be any indication to the power of the stories contained within. Through brevity of language, choosing to paint his scenes with tone and social politics rather than needless descriptive minutiae, Negrón writes like a man attempting to pull the rug out from beneath the collective feet of a nation. Mundo Cruel is a cold, penetrating read.

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