“Before the End, After the Beginning” by Dagoberto Gilb, Stories from the United States Southwest

“Before the End, After the Beginning” by Dagoberto Gilb  (2011) – 194 pages

Dagoberto Gilb is a big guy who knows his way around both a construction site and a publishing office.  He was born in 1950 in Los Angeles, his mother Mexican-American; his father German.   Before and during college, he had several laborer jobs.  He graduated from college in 1974 with a double major in Philosophy and Religious Studies and went on to complete his Masters in Religious Studies in 1976.  After that in order to make a living he worked as a carpenter in  high-rise construction.  During his off time, he wrote a novel, never published.

 Gilb was working as a carpenter in the museum of the University of Texas at El Paso when he met the late writer Raymond Carver in 1977.  Gilb switched from writing novels to short stories due to Carver’s influence.  Carver offered to sponsor Gilb at the University of Iowa Creative Writing Program, but Gilb turned the offer down.     

 “What [Carver] was telling me, what I came to learn over the next decade, was the way the system works. You go to Iowa, you turn your story into a professor, who’s a famous writer. And that famous professor-writer gets you to an editor. Whereas I was under the misconception that you put things in the mail, and some editor reads it and (something) happens, if it was good. I don’t know where my life would have been if I’d known what [Carver] was talking about. On the one hand, I suffered for not getting published. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have the material I have now.” –  Dagoberto Gilb from IdentityTheory.com

 His first full book of stories, ‘The Magic of Blood’, was published in 1993.  It won the 1994 PEN/Hemingway Foundation award and was a PEN/Faulkner finalist.  Since then he has published several books which have won various awards, and his stories have been published in the New Yorker, Harpers Magazine, and many other places. 

 Shortly before Dagoberto Gilb started writing this latest collection of stories, “Before the End, After the Beginning”, he suffered a stroke in 2009.  All of the stories in this collection are excellent, but I am going to concentrate on the first story which is based on Gilb’s experiences in the hospital immediately after his stroke.  That story is the first in the book and is called “please, thank you”.  It was first published in Harpers.   

 The story begins when the narrator arrives at the hospital after his stroke.  Some of the staff talk to him in Mexican as if his family had not been in the United States longer than most of them.  He gets mad at the hospital staff maybe because he’s upset he had this stroke in the first place. It has left him semi-paralyzed on the right side.  Gilb calls his narrative approach ‘first-person stupid’. I would say it is the interior monologue many of us would have under the same circumstances. 

 The hospital has staff members present 24 hours a day for the stroke patients, and these persons aren’t high-paid doctors but regular working people of different ethnic groups and attitudes.  One is Mexican-American, one is Chinese, etc.  Some are odd like the late-at-night guy.  Gradually our narrator realizes that they are all working to help him get better after his stroke.  As the story progresses, our narrator becomes calm and confident enough to help one of the staff to deal with her own personal and family affront.   So our narrator goes from rage to being a helpful thoughtful person again.  This is a moving transformation effectively told. 

 Many of the stories in “Before the End, After the Beginning” have this same kind of emotional kick.  Dagoberto Gilb writes stories about working people that will touch you profoundly.  One can definitely recognize the influence of Raymond Carver in this work, but the stories have their own distinctive power.

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