Thursday, August 28, 2008

Any Small Goodness

Reviewed by Steven Wolk

I was a suburban kid. I grew up in a very white and affluent suburb of Chicago. All of my friends were Just Like Me. My grandmother lived on the north side of the city. My grandfather owned two gas stations in Chicago that, in those days, actually repaired cars. And my great uncle had a flower shop in the city. So I certainly spent some time within the city limits, but those neighborhoods didn’t seem that far away from my suburban enclave. As a kid I rarely, if ever, ventured deeper into the city. I did not have a clue what life was like beyond the borders of my family. Specific memories have dissipated, but I’m sure as I progressed through the years I had stereotypes about how the "other half" lived – especially since I rarely interacted with the other half. When I did see them, on TV or in movies, the images just perpetuated the stereotypes. And how much has changed? Today, when affluent white suburban America sees a story of poor and working poor urban America, how often are those stories about the hope and goodness in those communities?

That is exactly what Any Small Goodness is about. Yes, there are gangs and shootings and struggle, but the heart of this short novel surrounds a small, intact, and loving Mexican-American family working hard each day to survive and be happy in the barrio of LA. The story is told by Arturo, or "Turo" for short. Each chapter of the book focuses on one person in his community who has a "small goodness." In fact, the book could be read as a collection of short stories, similar to the wonderful work of Gary Soto in his books Living Up the Street, Baseball in April, and Petty Crimes. The tales told in each chapter are connected by Turo's quest to find his own goodness, his own way to give something back to the people. And they’re connected by Turo's ability to see and appreciate the goodness embedded in the chaos around him.

Tony Johnston’s writing is luscious; like reading prose poetry. One chapter opens with this sentence: "My hair wakes up stupid." Another begins with, "The LA’s a swindle of a river." While some readers may feel the book is weighed down by too many romantic similes, I take the complete opposite view. I love the romance of this story and I can reread the similes all day: "I hear a long, moist sigh then. Like the breath of a tired teakettle." Or this: "Unbelievable! Coach strolls into the gym – in a suit! A Tie! (Off to one side, like a skinny, wind-flopped flag). He usually wears grey oversized sweats that make him look like a melting elephant."

And there are the names. I have this thing for cool names for characters. It’s not just the names; it’s how they sound on the tongue and the images they bring to mind. This story has Leo Love and Ms. Cloud and Coach Tree and Mama Dulce and Miss Pringle. But the most important character of all is Turo's father, his Papi, who is calm and quiet and wise. When gangbangers taunt him one day, Turo thinks, "How can they menace my father, this beautiful man? He’s the real macho, I believe, strong enough to be gentle."

Sometimes the best gifts come in small packages. At 129 pages Any Small Goodness is a wisp of a book. It is its own small goodness, teeming with hope and insight. I’d like to think that if I had read this book when I was a kid, walking the streets and parks of my suburban life just as Turo walks the barrio, that my eyes might have been opened just a bit to the vital power of everyday small acts and the beauty that thrives, buried amidst the disorder we call life.

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