Myriam Gurba is a short-story writer—I made a note to pay attention to her work after reading her in Punk Planet—and she’s turned her economy of words to Mean, a memoir of growing up Latina and gay on California’s Central Coast, and also of violent crime. She fits a lot into 175 pages.
The memoir opens with the rape-murder of an unnamed woman. After that chapter, Gurba doesn’t return focus to the victim for another hundred pages, instead writing about her own ongoing life.
As a child dining with an Anglo neighbor, Gurba is served something called “Mexican casserole,” but instead of being engaged with the well-told story, all you can think is, You had to eat rude food—who gives a shit? Can we get back to the rape-murder? Even when a classmate molests Gurba, the dead woman’s absence is lamentably notable. You wonder whether the opening chapter was there solely to lend appropriated tragedy to Gurba’s memoir.
But eventually you learn that Gurba and the victim have a connection. And so I’m going to encourage you to read Mean, but to skip the opening chapter, and go back to it when you reach the chapter where you learn about the connection. This is arguably a dick thing for a reviewer to write (though I liken it to skipping or re-ordering tracks on an album), but it’s either that or pan the book. And panning the book means people missing out on moments like the Mexican casserole, or like this: “One of our assignments was to make art in a non-art space. For this assignment, Tim wrapped a nearby spiral staircase in pink and purple string. It became something for students to trip on while doing psychedelics.”
Gurba admires meanness—even while highlighting the personal and cultural despair that it wreaks—and she wastes no rarefied time trying to reconcile any of that. –Jim Woster (Coffee House Press, emilybooks.com)