Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison
coalescent

'Trujillo'

Many of the stories collected in Trujillo examine masculinity in some way--'Jailwise', for instance, or 'Eternity and Afterward'. The most direct, and darkest, engagement with the subject, however, has been saved for last. 'Trujillo' asks what it means to be a man, and does not offer comforting answers.

For the only time in the collection, two distinct voices coexist within the same story. The first-met, and more likeable, belongs to an overweight, middle-aged psychologist, Dr Arturo Ochoa. He's lived in Trujillo for some years, supported by the income from a well-received book on sports psychology. Life has not always been kind to him; his wife, Merced, vanished four years earlier after an evening out at one of the local bars. Common wisdom has it that she was murdered, though in his more self-critical moments Arturo suspects she ran off with a visiting American. He still has his daughter, although that relationship is not as close as it once was. Lizeth is growing up fast, testing her boundaries, caught on the cusp between girl and woman.

Arturo doesn't have a bad life by any means (he's even running for town Mayor), but his latest patient--the story's second voice--is enough to give anyone an inferiority complex. William Stearns is young, wealthy, confident, and 'handsome nearly to the point of prettiness' (p.530). He attracts women with ease, whereas Arturo has lived alone since his wifevanished. On the other hand, Stearns' life is more turbulent than his doctor's; as the only survivor of a boating accident that killed two men, he lies under suspicion of murder, a suspicion not helped by the fact that the only things he can remember about the accident are clearly parts of a delusion: a strange, wrong-way whirlpool and a mysterious stone statue. In some measure, it's tempting for the reader to believe that Stearns deserves these misfortunes. He's not a nice person; he's arrogant, and takes advantage of women with callous contempt. We're told that Trujillo's 'meanness and poverty and insignificance might have been tailored to the contours of his spirit. It comforted him in the way of a warm bath.' (p.564)

Interestingly, his father, Nathaniel Stearns describes to Arturo a quite different person. That young man is kind, enthusiastic, and shy around women. At first it seems that Nathaniel may just have been blinded to his son's true nature; as the story wears on, it becomes more likely that something in Stearns' experiences has changed him. Arturo speculates he may have developed multiple personality disorder. The new Stearns sees everything around him in terms of sexual power--he even describes Trujillo, the town with which he has fallen in love, as being like his perfect woman. And when you meet the perfect woman, 'you just know' (p.582), he tells Arturo.

Against the backdrop of William's therapy sessions, both men embark on new relationships. Stearns finds himself drawn to a young bar-owner called Suyapa; Arturo becomes involved with an older woman called Maria. The two are, in many ways, as opposite as Stearns and Arturo. Suyapa is mysterious, engimatic (a typically Shepardian woman). In her, it seems that Stearns has met his match, for she is quite capable of running rings around him, something he finds extremely disconcerting--disempowering, even.

With Maria, the situation is quite different. 'Men are men,' she tells Arturo at one point, matter-of-factly. 'They have instincts, reflexes. The good ones control their instincts.' (p.593) The doctor, in her eyes, is a good man, although he can't understand why--as they become closer, he finds himself increasingly nervous, and has to be calmed. 'I know about men,' she says, 'and if there's one thing I've learned, it's how to overcome their worries.' (p.596) She encourages Arturo to dominate; she plays a submissive role. And, at first, it works; indeed, compared to the Suyapa-Stearns power-play, the developing relationship between Arturo and Maria seems kinder, and more loving.

Gradually things change, however. The situations invert. Stearns finds himself confused by Suyapa, but it's the confusion of waking from a bad dream. When he's with her, he no longer seeks constant control; it's enough that she's there. Arturo, on the other hand, perhaps enjoying the power Maria gave him a little too much, perhaps influenced by Stearns himself, gradually adopts the sort of behaviour patterns--and worse--that he so deplored in his patient. Eventually Maria's submission is unwilling, damaging. Two different liasons, with two different sorts of power balance, lead to two very different reactions.

Arturo, ever analytical, is not unaware of the change in his attitudes; he theorises that it's come about by association with Stearns, maybe even that it's some demonic force infecting him. If Stearns' attitude towards Trujillo is not his own--'Trujillo would be lost without its oppressor' (p.625) he opines at one point--but is instead the attitude of a dark thing riding his soul, then a jump from the younger host to the Mayoral candidate, the potentially more powerful, makes sense. Certainly it's not too long before Arturo has adopted the philosophy as his own. And again, he's not unaware of what's happening; he just doesn't care. And by the time the reader realises just how bad things are going to get, it's far too late to do anything but watch, helplessly, as the drama plays out to an inevitable conclusion. Several sections of the story, as Arturo falls fully from grace, are extremely hard to read. By the end, the voices the reader knows have changed completely; Arturo is more degenerate than Stearns ever was, and Stearns is at peace, relaxed, even to be married.

The story reminded me somewhat of an infamous episode of Angel, 'Billy', in which a touch from the titular baddie-of-the-week causes a man to become abusive towards women; brings out, as femme fatale Lilah puts it, 'a primordial misogyny'. Possibly the most chilling part of the episode is witnessing the effect that Billy has on Wesley--a good man, by any reasonable definition. At the end of the episode Wesley is himself again, but deeply scarred, terribly ashamed of his actions. Fred goes to visit him.
FRED: Wesley, you gotta come back to work.

WESLEY: How can I?

FRED: What do you mean? How you can you not? You're the boss--we need you. You took a few days off. That's good, we all did. But now you need to come back to work.

WESLEY: Fred, I tried to kill you.

FRED: (shaking her head) That wasn't you.

WESLEY: How can you know that? Something inside me was forced to the surface. Something primal, something ...

FRED: Do you want to kill me?

WESLEY: (quietly) God, no.

FRED: It wasn't something in you, Wesley. It was something that was done to you.
The episode was controversial because Fred's assertion--that it was something done to Wesley, not something in him--isn't really supported by the rest of the text, and many people objected to the suggestion that men, all men, carry that sort of darkness inside them.It seems unlikely that Lucius Shepard watched Angel, or has heard of Billy Blim. Still, the focus of 'Trujillo', its attitude towards the dark side of masculinity, is very similar to that of 'Billy'. The reader desperately wants to believe that what is happening to Arturo is being done to him by a demon, not the result of something in him, whilst the story refuses to commit to an answer.

Oh, it is a fantasy, and it's hard not to be thankful for that fact. Everything points towards a demonic explanation; something corrupting first Stearns, then Arturo. As in 'Billy', though, that doesn't stop the doubts. The two men share a weakness, a weakness that something exploits. Is it in all men? In me? My friends? If there wasn't the chance that the story is wrong, 'only' a fantasy--if it was certain that men are this way, deep down--then reading it might simply break your heart.

'Trujillo' is eloquent, disturbing, at times incredibly sad. It's a fitting conclusion to a superb collection.

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