"Carry Me Like Water," by Benjamin Alire Saenz. 448 pages, Hyperion. $22.95
Back in the days when George Minot and I ran fiction workshops out of Miss Bonnie's Elvis Bar, George would hold up a manuscript and ask: "Who's story is this?"
It was not a question of authorship. George sought to excise and exhibit the heart of narrative: Who's story is being told?
In poet Ben Senz's first novel "Carry Me Like Water" - a book about miracles that falls short of becoming a miraculous book - the story belongs to a small crowd of characters vexed by identity: their real ones, their assumed ones, and the one that results from carrying both around for too long.
The primary characters are three sets of estranged siblings hiding from truths (their true selves) formed in troubled, violent childhoods.
Slowly, Senz shepherds all into a single story, with almost everyone living together by the end of the book, one in which a mother can say to her daughter, as if asking her to pass the salt: "You quit your job, you go and practically live with two gay men, you start talking about revolutions, you start losing your interest in sex, you start reading people's minds, and you leave your body every Tuesday and Thursday."
This is literary Chicano fiction in the genre's comfortable vein of magic realism. But the lyrical quill of Senz - drunk with poetry and straining for cosmic significance in every breeze - is too dependent upon magic and too weak in reality for a proper spell to be cast.
I want to believe that the last act of an AIDS victim is to transfer his gift for mind-reading and out-of-body travel to his nurse, who doesn't know that the patient is her long lost-brother.
But don't try to sell me a guy named Eddie who won't spend a $38 million inheritance because it came from his cruel parents, a fortune that ultimately allows most of the important characters to pursue spiritual journeys without worrying about bills.
And I tired early of glib '90s dialogue - whether in yuppie California or the border slums of Texas - that seemed unworthy of the people speaking it. The best quotes belong to a deaf man who writes down his thoughts.
Yet, I liked this book. When his insights are simple and his conveyance spare, Senz is wonderful, at times magnificent, as in the scene where a man dying from AIDS glimpses himself while " getting out of a tub: "He imagined that the drops of water dripping from his body were tears. His body was crying."
For allowing "Carry Me Like Water" to entertain me, I was reminded that gifts are not commodities and I learned a few things. While everyone presumes deafness to be a defect, so are dimples, formed by imperfections in the tissues around the mouth.
Defects, Senz is saying, are in the mind of the beholder, and the one responsible for the most misery - selfishness - is the easiest to remedy.
* Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun and a fiction writer. His story "The Fountain of Highlandtown" won the 1994 Artscape award for fiction.