Off the page: ‘The Boundaries of Their Dwelling’
A distance of 1,156 miles of jungle streams and desert highways lies between New Orleans and Tecolutla, Mexico, the inconvenient setting of a high-stakes baptism in “Godfather,” the sixth story in Blake Sanz’s Iowa Short Fiction Award-winning story collection The Boundaries of Their Dwelling. In that tale, an American outsider prepares to bridge the distance to deliver a baby across the U.S. border. In another, two Mexican sisters travel to Miami to participate in a Spanish-language, Jerry Springer-style talk show, only to discover that their Nahuatl features and nation’s traumas translate into stereotyped consumption for the masses. In a third, a grieving bartender keeps vigil for his mother in the lonely streets of New Orleans. And in all of them, separated between two parts—Lives of the Saints and Manuel and Tommy, named for two characters first introduced in “Godfather”—Sanz weaves a place-hopping, time-hopping narrative about the crises of identity between South and West, American and Latin, conservation and exploitation.
Sanz, a Baton Rouge native with a bachelor’s degree from Loyola University New Orleans and an MFA from the University of Notre Dame, now teaches at the University of Denver, and his own identity as a writer finds a home in several perspectives. Though his voice is perhaps most mutable in the story-length monologue of a former ballerina in “After the Incident, Mary Vásquez Teaches Burlesque,” many of the settings and characters in Boundaries will prove to be familiar to Louisiana readers in particular, from the small town of Rayne in “Frog Festival” to the post-Katrina bewilderment of “Hurricane Gothic.”
The character-driven conflicts simmer with the uncertainties of modern life, entrenched in class conflict, disappointments and grievances—the types of subjects that make the world seem like an entity bent on destroying the peace of its inhabitants. Yet Sanz does bring a sense of hope to the table, as well as a sense of hidden mystique. Amidst the hypnotic, regional details that ebb beneath these stories, who can blame the entranced German visitor of “Oh, But to Be a Hearse” for withholding his observations of New Orleans from his distant fiancé, deciding instead to “keep these oddities to himself.”