February 26, 2010
Gilbert Gaeta, a Mexican American single dad, works the night shift at a dairy to provide for his teenage daughter, Ana. But as far as engaging her, asking her outright what’s going on in her young life, he prefers typical macho silence over direct confrontation.
And so do most of the other characters who move through the moody, debut novel, This Time Tomorrow (Thomas Dunne Books) by Michael Jaime-Becerra. It’s these missed opportunities for real conversation that propel their lives into brilliantly rendered desperation.
Jaime-Becerra, speaking by phone from his kitchen in El Monte, California, described his characters as “people afraid to confront their realities.”
But who can blame them?
In this bleak, bruised world, overtime hours are seen as the answer to everything, and life’s pleasures seem forever deferred on the lay-away plan at JC Penny. Still, there’s an odd beauty to this landscape of dignified financial struggle: college clubs sell cinnamon churros to raise money, and young girls grab coffee with their BFFs at the down-market Donut King instead of a shiny Starbucks.
“All of those details grew out of my experiences growing up in El Monte,” Jaime-Becerra said, though he stressed that the novel, narrated in three parts by different characters, is less a cautionary tale about houses in foreclosure and FICO scores and more about the exploration of character.
Jaime-Becerra’s previous collection of short stories, Every Night is Ladies’ Night, published in 2004, earned him a California Book Award. With that success, he continued in the short story form and had every intention of writing what he called “Ladies’ Night 2.0.”
He had four individual pieces drafted when he began to further develop one scene in which the girl who would be Ana unburdens herself to a boyfriend about terrible things she did when she was 13. “Twelve pages into it, I realized this was a book,” Jamie-Becerra said.
He spent the next six years pulling these isolated threads into a single narrative.
“I’ve known for a very long time that I wanted to write,” he said, remembering the annual elementary school literary contest in which he submitted what he now calls “a bad Indiana Jones knock-off” one year and another adventure book about a skateboard contest in outer space the next. The early recognition from his teachers and a second place win at the county level encouraged him to keep writing, but it wasn’t until late in college that he began to sharpen his focus on the El Monte neighborhood of his adolescence, a community where he continues to live and find inspiration.
In 1996, Gary Soto’s Chapbook Series published Jaime-Becerra’s Look Back and Laugh. A larger collection of pieces, The Estrellitas off Peck Road, was published the following year by the indie press Temporary Vandalism.
“These are like demo tapes of what would happen later on,” Jaime-Becerra said.
His family has been supportive throughout. Jaime-Becerra pointed out that his parents weren’t avid readers, but there were weekly trips to the public library. His mother was the type who kept the kids busy, demanding book reports of everything they read—even when school was out for the summer.
These days, his parents are the ones offering reports on their son’s literary achievements. Soon after Ladies’ Night came out, Jaime-Becerra’s father traveled down to Queretaro, Mexico to visit family. While there, he’d get dressed and, carrying a briefcase, ride the local buses. “I don’t know where he got that briefcase,” Jaime-Becerra said. “My father was a retired meat cutter who worked for over 20 years.”
On his bus rides, his father would pop open the briefcase and announce in English to the Norteamericano riders that he was scouting locations for his son’s book tour and then pass around the hardback. The riders, snowbirds from midwestern states wintering in Mexico, all swore they’d buy the book when they returned home.
“My dad’s a big talker,” Jaime-Becerra explained with a laugh. “So if there are people in Ohio who read my book, then I’ve got him to thank for it.”
Erasmo Guerra lives in New York and is a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop.