Drowning Tucson

By Aaron Michael Morales

Coffee House Press
May 2010, Paperback, 330 pages

Drowning Tucson

Reviewed by Darby M. Dixon III



Fill your book with blatant, modern-day classic, critical thematic concerns and a reviewer ought to have no problem calling them out in an easily digested bullet-point format. So we have Drowning Tucson by Aaron Michael Morales, in which, yes, race, sex, class. Gotcha revenge and mercy. Hello violence and suffering. Welcome to the party pedophilia, prostitution, human worth and dignity. All the above are on display here, ready to be picked apart and analyzed in essays and articles about narrative success and structures and interests. I ought to be able to phone this review in while mowing the lawn next to the airport.

Except, this book hurt. And trying to find a way to talk about that without merely repeating over and over again that this book hurt presents a far greater challenge.

To further complicate matters, it’s obvious that this book intends to hurt. Drowning Tucson is up to something simultaneously guttural and technical, resonant and crafted. That it worked on the emotional level so effectively even while I was largely aware of what it was doing on a critical level points to the interesting nature of its mitigated success. The book tells compelling stories that, at their most violent, pummel the reader into emotional submission, and, at their most successful, resonate on a deeper, more subtle level. But it doesn’t for a second hide its intent in either case.

At its core, I believe this is a book for those who recognize or feel or suspect that human beings are bags of meat, designed to grieve. To grieve our ends. To grieve for what we have done, for what we have made of ourselves. To grieve our condition. Or to just grieve.


All of which might sound a bit like it’s doing a shock-lit thing, seeking reactions more than telling stories. Though the book goes to numerous, really quite unpleasant places, and won’t win any champions at the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, Morales keeps it tight through straightforward, clear, and mostly concise prose. He peppers it with vernacular but never unreadably so.

Consider the opening of the stand-out story “Kindness,” a complex tale of vengeance and compassion:

Mud squished beneath Sammy’s feet as he crossed the rain-soaked schoolyard of Buena High School, less than a mile from home. It was a cold night, especially for the desert, so he hunched his shoulders a little to shield his chest from the wind, slowing his pace to savor the moment and remember the eyes meeting and the wonderful conversation that had gone on and on between he and J—they had never wanted it to stop—until it was finally time for them both to go home. We have to go home.

It’s this kind of easy prose that provides the foundation for much of the complexity and turmoil that follows. It’s also the kind of prose that makes  a foil for the tonal shifts that happen (as they do in most every story in the book) when things go south, when violence strikes. As happens several paragraphs later in “Kindness,” when, during Sammy’s walk home, “Five bodies suddenly appeared out of the drizzle” and “twitched and bumped, stomping in the mud like a herd of bulls.” He becomes their victim in a vicious, fatal attack, one that is narrated through an explosive 600-word sentence. Morales does well with this type of prose, using the rhythm and flow of the language to mirror the brutality experienced by the character, as (in this case) Sammy is put through one humiliating, dehumanizing form of violence after another. Morales keeps the pyrotechnics on display accessible, avoiding potential post-modernist techniques or pitfalls to keep the affair entirely on point. If there is a problem with these moments, it is that they can, by the end of the book, start to feel a bit predictable. While the supporting stories are strong enough that he mostly gets away with it, they could have the unfortunate effect of drawing attention away from some of the quieter moments Morales works into his stories. “Kindness” itself ends in one such moment, and for it is made one of the most successful stories in the book.


It’s moments like those described in the excerpt above that have me feeling hurt by the book. I should clarify that when I say this book hurt, I’m referring to a specific, perhaps personal kind of hurt, the kind I remember feeling the first time I read books like The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway. Acknowledging that my “books that have messed me up big time” list probably offers as much insight into me as a reader as it does some literary context for Morales’s book, what for me connects these books, what works for them, is the way in which they reach out with characters while pulling back into rigged systems, the suggestion being that, in life, things not only can go wrong, but must. Things will suck; you cannot look away. Call it the literature of unfair systems.

Drowning Tucson is going about matters in a different way, though. While Morales's characters are caught up in a system that is almost designed to entrap, to wreck, to ruin—there being a reason why this book has “drowning” in the title and has characters frequently calling for the whole thing, life, the world, to get a big wet reset—the book front-and-centers its desire to affect the reader, partially through its language, partially through its subject matter. We spend a lot of time here with characters we’re not supposed to like. Morales isn’t afraid to use taboo subject matter about which few people will have conflicted feelings even as we enjoy—“enjoy,” perhaps, in quotes—the stories he tells using them. It all brings a degree of black grit to his stories, which, for some, might be more distracting than attractive.

It would all be so much worse, so much more a case of shock-lit, if Morales was a poor crafter of language. For example, Morales is a master of the grab-you-by-the-throat opening line, as in these five different beginning sentences:

There’s the goddamn spics I was telling you about.  (“Torchy’s”)

Carmella Santiago begged her husband not to pull the trigger. But when he did, she fell in love with him all over again.  (“Ice Cream”)

When Rainbow came upon a dead body lying in her path, she did what people often do—provided the body doesn’t belong to a relative or a friend. She stopped, held her breath, and bent down to rifle through the dead man’s pockets.  (“Rainbow”)

Manny came for the tits, but now he didn’t notice them jiggling in his face.  (“Loveboat”)

This is the part where I’m supposed to bash out my window and crawl onto the roof, Rebecca thought, when the cab of her car had been underwater for more than two minutes.  (“Flashflood”)

Morales makes it look easy. He has to: the book comprises ten loosely connected stories, most any of which could serve as a point of entry into the world he constructs. The cover claims the book is a novel, but it hardly needs to be read as such, nor does it really seem to want to be read as such. The book offers six different tables of contents, each arranging the stories in a particular order for specific personality types: the purist, the quixotic, the downtrodden, the skeptic, the zealot, and of course the deconstructionist, who would read the stories in reverse order.

I stuck with the purist route, starting with page one and reading straight through. Though the stories have little direct connection to each other, as one might expect from a book that classifies itself as a novel, there remains a strong emotional progression from one story to the next, beginning with the opening story, “Torchy’s.” In dealing with a gang initiation gone wrong, Morales introduces escape as a theme that will connect all of the stories that follow. He uses this theme to take the stories emotionally from bad to worse to oh whoa ugh ugh ugh by the time we reach the penultimate story, “Ice Cream.” To offer an intelligent argument on behalf of the story—and its pedophile protagonist—I would need to re-read it; fortunately for my emotional well-being, nobody’s paying me enough to do so. Instead, I’ll simply say that this harrowing story, drenched in momentum, is certainly the most heavy-handed story in this book, and might be one of the most heavy-handed things I’ve read in the past decade. Still, it underscores the terrible qualities of this book’s world in a way a passing reference could not achieve. Through this book we need to experience the worst that can happen, the most inescapable forms of horror. This helps us realize the depths of the badness of this place—this book’s world, this vision of the world in which we live—where the worst does happen, where the idea of escape is the rambling daydream of a deluded fool. I plan to send Morales the water bill for the shower I had to take after I read it.

In the end it is fitting that this book, in which escape itself becomes so clearly a central character, taunting here, ignoring there, offers no clear answers to its central quandaries, no direct line of sight to anyplace beyond the rigged systems upon which we have based so much of our so-called social order. The book does not, I believe, seek to extinguish the idea that such routes, such hope, may exist. But, if you let the book in, if you go with the book to the ends it goes to, you should be prepared for the following emotional fall-out. For a day, for a week, for a while, every path might seem a little more pointless. And what’s the way out of that?