By Tim Z. Hernandez (Texas Tech University Press, 2010. 2903 4th Street, Suite 201, Lubbock, Texas 79409) 192 pp. Cloth $26.95 www.ttuo.edu
Tim Z. Hernandez’s writing isn’t new to me. A few years ago, at the U.C.L.A. Book Fair, I bought a copy of his book, SKIN TAX, because I liked its cover. Of course no one can tell a book by its cover, but I liked the title too. The purchase, justified.
Opening SKIN TAX, as my husband and I were driving north on 99 coming home, I found myself overwhelmed. The words in the book were even more beautiful than the cover. The poems sang of life in this valley, life elemental, life I saw around me, life I shared. My husband drove; I read to him. We both recognized a voice singing the pure music of language with an unusual power and an honest eloquence.
BREATHING, IN DUST, Tim’s new novel is gut-bustingly, heart-rendingly graphic. It is a difficult book to read, because it holds nothing back. But it is truly an unforgettable book, so emotionally wrenching that a reader must stop and mark a page, to rest for a time, before being able to read further.
It has been over a month since I read the book, and I have read other good novels in the interim. But chapters from in BREATHING, IN DUST stay in my mind as whole units. They will not leave. BREATHING, IN DUST is a profound book of adversity and pain, and also triumph. At the end of this book, not only has Tlaloc, the protagonist, risen from its pages to a secure place in the reader’s pantheon of memorable literary figures, but its lesser characters: Zeta, Alajandro, Jesus, Talina, even a bakery truck driver, have emerged as both the saints and martyrs of California’s Central Valley. They, too, are the book’s heroes.
Challenging James Baldwin and John Steinbeck, Tim Z. Hernandez’s triumphant novel will hold a place in the ranks of American writers of social conscience through its sensitive humanity. But this author’s glorious attention to the rhythms, sounds, and nuance of language make the book transcend journalistic goals. BREATHING, IN DUST is literature. I’m proud that such a book came from a writer here in the region of America where I live.
A beautiful child, who worked hard at his spelling and times-tables, was killed in a drive-by six years after he left my third grade classroom. He wasn’t the target of the shooting, merely present in the same house. He shared no guilt. As so often happens here, he was another accidental victim. I’ve never found the words to write out the harrowing grief I felt.
Thank you, Tim. You know the words, and have spoken them for me.
– Sylvia Ross