Where Literary Meets the Fabulist: Juan Martinez’s Best Worst American

A middle aged pet store employee takes his cat on a quest to Las Vegas, while a teenager cares for—or perhaps moons over—the abandoned plants of a neighbor he had a crush on. Peer into a world where a person’s future can be forecast via their partner’s kitten poster of choice. These are a few of the delicacies on offer in Best Worst American, by Juan Martinez. This collection of short pieces from Small Beer Press is a buffet of subtle literary constructions, a mix of sweet (and sometimes bittersweet) portraits about people getting by, mostly, in contemporary American settings.

Many of the stories in Best Worst American lie on the shadowy borders of the literary and fabulist genres. In “Roadblock,” for example, an aunt and nephew find themselves at odds when tragedy forces them to live together. The aunt keeps setting the nephew’s things on fire… somehow. Her targets are random and improbable: she ignites coffee at one point, and sets his coat afire in a airport. The mechanism for her pyrokinetics is never explained, as it might be in a more straight-up fantasy. The result is an eerie and unsettling story about loss, survivor guilt, and the arbitrary nature of family ties.

Born in Bucaramanga, Colombia, Martinez has lived in Orlando, Florida as well as his current home of Las Vegas. Many of these stories are set in Las Vegas, naturally enough, and the fundamental surreality of Nevada only adds to the sense of strangeness in Best Worst American. In “On Paradise,” a man goes looking for his mother and grandmother, who ran away to Vegas to work as showgirls. Though he himself is well into midlife, he finds the women unchanged: they haven’t gotten a day older.

Other stories provide an even more overt sense of the fantastic: “Customer Service at the Karaoke Don Quixote” is a playful science fiction story, and “Your Significant Other’s Kitten Poster,” is a hilarious little bite of metafiction.

Martinez writes in short, clipped sentences, and he loves to create lists: unspooling all the different times a character got drunk, or offering up a series of encounters with a ghost in “The Spooky Japanese Girl is There for You.” There a gentleness that underlies many of these stories, even when the characters face a certain degree of danger, as in “Domokun in Fremont.” In Domokun, three children wander away from the anti-abortion protest their father is organizing, and find themselves in a very sketchy neighborhood.

In others pieces, like “The Coca-Cola Executive in the Zapatoca Outhouse,” this banked sense of violence breaks through, taking the stories out of the realm of the mildly disturbing, into something colder, more unequivocally horrifying.

A lot of single-author collections benefit from an off-again, on-again approach from readers. The similarities, from piece to piece, within an author’s work can be too easily seen when you take in twenty or more pieces at once. Such collections are better taken with a bit of mix: interspersed with novels and non-fiction, consumed over time. But Martinez’s work has a lot of variation. His stories run from the darkly absurd to finely-honed depictions of American immigrants’ experiences. As readers progress through the book, continuing story elements emerge—one is about the existence of a secret order of pinstripe-wearing men who run the world, for example.

Best Worst American will draw in readers looking for a hit of everything they never knew they wanted, whether it’s whimsical reflections on whether dolphins are bigger jerks, in the grand scheme, than the lead singers of rock bands, depictions of the romantic failures of professional lawn mowers, or even rants on the rarely-considered concept of hobbledehoydom.

Entering Martinez’s sphere of influence with optimism: you will emerge changed by his imagination, ready to see the world in a different light.

Best Worst American is available now from Small Beer Press.

A.M. Dellamonica‘s newest book is the The Nature of a Pirate, sequel to her Prix-Aurora Award winning A Daughter of No Nation, whose first chapter is here! She has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travelhorror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also, “The Glass Galago,” the third of a series of stories called The Gales. This story and its predecessors, “Among the Silvering Herd,” and “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” are prequels to this newest novel and its predecessor, Child of a Hidden Sea. If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic

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