Volume 26 Book Reviews

Carlos Fuentes
The Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. Pp. 266. $23.00
Reviewed by George R. McMurray

Mexico’s internationally acclaimed fiction writer Carlos Fuentes has also written plays and countless essays. Most critics consider The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962) his best novel to date, but other high points in his career include Where the Air Is Clear (1958), Aura (1962), Change of Skin (1967), and The Old Gringo (1985). Although some would add Terra Nostra (1975) to this list, because of its difficulty, it is more admired than read. In more recent years, as demonstrated by Diana, the Goddess Who Hunts Alone (1994) and the present volume under consideration, Fuentes’s creative powers may be on a steep decline.

Contrary to its subtitle, The Crystal Frontier is not a novel, but rather a collection of nine stories loosely linked by one character, Don Leonardo Barroso, who appears-at times only briefly-in most of them. The principal theme is one Fuentes has developed previously: the U.S.-Mexican border as a wound that refuses to heal. In addition, “the crystal frontier” is presented as a prism through which Americans and Mexicans view, and in some ways reflect, each other. Indeed, it is this theme that determines the book’s not always welcome political agenda.

“A Capital Girl,” one of the better stories, describes the love affair between Don Leonardo Barroso and his comely daughter-in-law, Michelina. When the latter moves from Mexico City to Leonardo’s luxurious estate near the northern border, she is introduced to the rich ladies of the community, whom Fuentes satirizes for their grotesque reflection of U.S. culture: “Michelina was the only one who didn’t have a face-lift. She sat down ...among the twenty or so rich and perfumed women, all of them outfitted on the other side of the border, bejewelled, most with mahogany-tinted locks, some wearing Venetian fantasy glasses, others watery-eyed trying out their contact lenses, but all liberated” (15).

“Pain” delineates the division between two cultures via the image of a gorge in Ithaca, New York, where Juan Zamora, a poor Mexican medical student, befriends Jim, a wealthy American, at Cornell University. Their homosexual rela­tionship comes to an end when Juan is unable to adapt to American customs. In “Spoils,” one of the least successful tales, a Mexican chef crosses the border in search of employment. He acquires piles of American goods and then, after railing against American fast food outlets, fat women, and religious fanatics (he is obviously Fuentes’s mouthpiece), returns to Mexico, “from the land that has everything to the land that has nothing!” (88).

The paralysis of Don Leonardo Barroso’s brother in “The Line of Oblivion” becomes a metaphor for Mexican traditions when the old man’s children reject their father’s values in favor of the freer lifestyle practiced by their gringo friends. The problems brought to the border area by American assembly plants is the subject of “Malintzin of the Maquilas,” one of the collection’s better pieces. Here four Mexican women, employees in a TV factory, support their families, including their worthless macho lovers, while fending off abusive male supervisors at work. “Las amigas,” another of the better stories, depicts the relations between a selfish, upper-class American lady and her Mexican maid who manages to maintain her dignity in the face of repeated racial slurs and insults.

Although its plot is contrived, the title story perhaps best conveys Fuentes’s principal theme. In this tale Don Leonardo Barroso proposes to the U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich that impoverished Mexican workers be imported to U.S. cities each weekend, to do jobs Americans refuse to do, and then be returned to Mexico. One of a group of laborers brought to New York to wash windows in a skyscraper is a handsome young man named Lisandro who, while washing the windows of a beautiful executive, realizes that she is returning his stare. “He placed his lips on the glass. She didn’t hesitate to do the same. Their lips united through the glass. Both closed their eyes. She didn’t open hers for several minutes. When she did, he was no longer there” (189).

Although Don Leonardo Barroso appears briefly in “The Bet,” this tale seems out of place, its setting being Mexico and Spain. Finally, “Rio Grande, Rio Bravo” reviews the baggage of U.S.-Mexican history along the border in an effort to explain how present-day issues such as illegal immigration, discrimination, and Chicano identity came about.

The literary failure of this volume derives in part from its dearth of well-drawn characters and convincing situations. Moreover, although Fuentes exposes his countrymen’s shortcomings, his attacks on Americans are often too explicit and politically motivated. Still, The Crystal Frontier sets forth some interesting and original perspectives on Mexican-American relations.