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The Town That Inspired John Steinbeck Has A New Literary Star

Grove Press/Black Cat

Ask any book-loving central Californian which author they associate with the city of Watsonville, and they'll probably mention the name of Golden State legend John Steinbeck. The town was reportedly the inspiration for Steinbeck's novel In Dubious Battle, and was the longtime home of his sister, Esther Rodgers. (Her house is still there, on Santa Cruz County's fairgrounds.)

But Steinbeck might not be the No. 1 literary pride of Watsonville for long. Enter Jaime Cortez, whose debut short story collection, Gordo, is set in and around the Pajaro Valley town. Cortez's book is an unforgettable portrait of the working-class Mexican Americans who lived there in the 1970s — including the charming misfit title character, who narrates most of the stories.

Gordo is a grade schooler growing up first in a migrant workers camp near Watsonville, and then in the city proper. His parents, Mexican immigrants, don't have much money, and Gordo isn't what you'd call a popular kid — his peers make fun of his lack of hypermasculinity, his ineptitude at sports, and as the nickname would suggest, his weight.

Cortez's depiction of Gordo is both joyful and heartbreaking. In "El Gordo," the boy's father, eager to make a man out of his son, gives him a boxing outfit and a replica mask of Gordo's favorite luchador, El Santo, which doesn't work out the way the dad hopes. When Gordo notices his new boots, he exclaims, "These are soooo pretty!" His father, in response, just "shakes his head like something bad just happened."

Gordo's skeptical of his father's plans to make him into a fighter, but he loves the outfit anyway: "It's embarrassing to be fat. I don't like the way people look at me. But today, I don't care. I'm El Santo, and I'm the best." When confronted by another kid in the workers camp, Gordo agrees to a fight that turns playful, but his would-be sparring partner ends up hurt anyway. It's an enormously affecting story, both sweet and sorrowful, and it showcases Cortez's ability to fully inhabit the voice of a young boy who knows he doesn't fit in, but is only beginning to understand why.

Gordo is forced to reckon with his sense of unbelonging in "Alex," set when the boy's family has moved from the workers camp to Watsonville. Gordo and his family witness an accident involving the titular neighbor, and the boy is surprised to discover that Alex isn't, as he'd assumed, a cisgender man. Gordo's sister, Sylvie, finds Alex to be "a creepy weirdo," but Gordo develops a sympathy for his neighbor: "Sometimes I feel different too. Maybe I'm creepy like Alex. Sylvie and a bunch of boys at school, they're always telling me I'm a sissy ... Sometimes they do leave me alone, sometimes they don't. It's not a good idea to be different."

The story takes a left turn when Gordo and his family discover that Alex's girlfriend Delia is being abused, and intervene to help her. Cortez explores the varying themes in the story delicately, and again captures Gordo's voice — childlike, wounded — beautifully: "I once heard Delia begging Alex not to hit her, but ... It never works when you ask someone to stop hitting you."

Cortez is a deeply compassionate writer; he obviously cares about his characters, though he doesn't treat them with kid gloves.

Cortez also explores sexuality in "The Problem of Style," which follows middle-school student Raymundo, "a kid sighted out of the corner of one's eye, moving through school with feral caution." Raymundo decides to grow his hair long, which catches the eyes of the school's bullies, who taunt and beat him on a regular basis, hurling homophobic insults at him every chance they get.

Raymundo longs to be anywhere else, imagining "magically transferring to an upscale middle school with tame white children, leaving only an empty chrysalis of himself at San Benito Junior High." He realizes his troubles might stop if he cuts his hair short, conforming to his classmates' expectations of how a boy should look, but he declines to do it — the story ends with a stubborn act of defiance, as Raymundo commits himself to an uncertain future.

It's a gorgeous story of resilience and hope, and it's emblematic of all the stories in Gordo. Cortez is a deeply compassionate writer; he obviously cares about his characters, though he doesn't treat them with kid gloves. The people in this collection are painfully real, sometimes flawed, sometimes angelic, frequently both. Gordo is a lovely book that masterfully evokes 1970s California, but manages, nonetheless, to feel truly universal.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.