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edge staff writer


‘Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino’ a compelling collection

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Sometimes, all it takes is a title.

I usually read and review 60 or so books over the course of a year. And I consider several times that many. A fair amount of the coverage is somewhat predetermined – if certain authors have new work coming or a new book is generating a lot of buzz, attention tends to be paid – but there is a degree of wiggle room, allowing me to occasionally take a chance. These chances don’t always pay off (though I should note that I rarely review the misfires), but when they do, they pay off big time.

With Julian Herbert’s “Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino” (Graywolf Press, $15.99), I hit the jackpot.

This collection of short stories by the noted Mexican writer, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, captured my attention with its title. Upon closer investigation, I discovered an assemblage of excellence, 10 short works that captivate and confound. These stories are surreal and absurd even as they uncover certain realities – harsh and otherwise – about the Mexican experience.

As I said, it was the title that caught my eye – no surprise, considering my affinity for the work of Mr. Tarantino – and the description was certainly intriguing, but I didn’t anticipate … this. It’s rare to encounter fiction that functions effectively both as commentary and as pure narrative, but these stories do just that. They are weird and visceral and deliberately difficult to define, but each of them has the power to work its way into your imagination. Funny and poignant, driven by moments of hilarity and sadness and fury, “Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino” is an exceptional reading experience.

Each of these stories is worthy of some exploration – some go long, while others are just a scant handful of pages – and every reader is likely to have their own ideas with regard to highlights. They’re all good. That said, there are a few that, to my mind, stand just a touch taller.

The collection’s leadoff offering is a strange little story titled “The Ballad of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.” A story from the point of view of a successful ghost writer, it’s structured around an attempt to punch up a businessman’s memoir. Said attempt involves a chance encounter with the famed Mother Teresa at an airport – and how wrong it could go. Except it doesn’t. Or does it?

“Caries” is definitely one of the collection’s standouts, a surreal bit of magical realism (magical surrealism?) involving a conceptual artist and, well … teeth. Specifically, the fact that he discovered sheet music in his teeth. A trip to the dentist reveals a mouth full of exquisitely rotten enamel that, once removed, proved to be interpretable as music. But when questions arise about the veracity of the claim – specifically, whether he may have plagiarized his mouth music – circumstances begin to spiral.

There’s a story about a partially-eaten croissant on the subway and the ways in which we choose to uphold and violate the social contract. There’s a tale of a man wandering the country, making a living pretending to be a noted writer of Westerns. And in “Z,” a riff on the literary zombie, we meet a man who is one of the few left uninfected by a pandemic that leaves the infected with a slowly-buy-steadily growing appetite for human flesh, though he doesn’t let that stop him from, among other things, maintaining a relationship with his infected (and very hungry) therapist.

Lastly, we should talk about the titular tale. The collection’s longest, it’s about a moderately well-known film critic who is kidnapped on behalf of a fugitive drug lord and tasked with instructing his captor in the nuances of all things Tarantino, all in the service of learning the best manner in which to have the auteur killed. His reason? No spoilers, but suffice it to say that QT’s impact on his life has been significant ever since the director’s work first graced the big screen.

(Seriously – it’s split between a critical theoretical discourse on Tarantino’s oeuvre and a through-line of the plot to kill him, all with a liberal sprinkling of a drug kingpin who has LITERALLY gone underground. I dug this story so much.)

Those are my favorites, but the truth is that a different day could bring a different answer. There isn’t a dud in the bunch. Herbert a gift for the challenging and the evocative – images and ideas alike. In the space of just a few sentences, he crafts whole worlds, populating them with idiosyncratic idealogues and idiot idealists. He uses these strange situations and stranger characters to address some of the very real issues of Mexican life. Poverty, drugs, corruption – all viewed through the distorted fluidity of Herbert’s finely-honed storytelling lunacy.

It’s also worth noting that, while it can be difficult to discern the impact of a translator on the work being translated, there’s little doubt that MacSweeney has done right by Herbert – the wit, the energy, the insight are all front and center. A great translator is one who does not leave their prints behind, and as far as that goes, MacSweeney is a ghost.

“Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino” is short fiction at its finest. Julian Herbert is unafraid to push boundaries with his storytelling, resulting in a collection of pieces that aren’t quite like anything I’ve ever read. Ten gems, each possessed of their own unique sparkle and shape – a precious and worthwhile collection.

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 November 2020 07:12


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