Carlos Velázquez - a collection of seven surreal, unrelentingly ironic, and unsettling tales, portrays the comedy and brutal tragedies of a region that occupies a unique place in the North American imagination
Carlos Velázquez, The Cowboy Bible and Other Stories, Trans. by Achy Obejas, Restless Books, 2016.
The much-anticipated English-language debut of “one of the most original and entertaining voices of contemporary Mexican literature” (Revista Gatopardo): a collection of surreal, ironic, and madcap stories about the comedy and brutal tragedies of life in Mexico.The provocateur and cult sensation Carlos Velázquez has earned comparisons to Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and William S. Burroughs, and has been called “a grand storyteller” (Diario Jornada), “an icon” (Frente), and “one of the most original and entertaining voices of contemporary Mexican literature” (Revista Gatopardo). His English-language debut, a collection of seven surreal, unrelentingly ironic, and unsettling tales, portrays the comedy and brutal tragedies of a region that occupies a unique place in the North American imagination.
Akin to Márquez’s Macondo or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, PopSTock! is a fictional northern Mexican territory where Velázquez’s stories take place. In addition to their common setting, central to each of these stories is the The Cowboy Bible–a magical object that can drastically change shape. The Cowboy Bible first appears as the talisman of a Santería-practicing luchador, DJ, and art critic, but later morphs into an unbeatable marathon drinker, a reality television show in which contestants must burn pirated CDs at top speed, and the leather for a pair of boots so coveted that it leads a man to grant the devil a night with his wife. With these otherworldly scenarios, pop culture references, and Velázquez’s linguistic inventiveness, The Cowboy Bible is a brazen social and political commentary on modern Mexican reality.
“The Cowboy Bible is one of the most extraordinary books invented by northern Mexico to comprehend itself.”—Sergio González Rodríguez
“Although his work has a certain geography and language that situate it in the tradition of northern Mexican fiction, the precision and depth with which Velázquez captures the pulse of his setting has turned him into an icon of Mexican fiction who is read with the same ease in his hometown of Torreón as in Argentina or Spain.”—Frente
“[Carlos Velázquez’s] writing sparkles with the fireworks of turbulent crossover fiction.… Velázquez [has] completed some of the most extraordinary works not only of his generation but also of the past two decades of Mexican literature…. Velázquez depicts his scenes with flashy language and sordid excesses, a sort of neonorthern Esperanto…. The critics have celebrated this emerging literature from the deep north as the sign of a transformation in the national letters. The confidence and nerve, the brazenness, the playful and uncontrollable liberty in Velázquez’s texts, as well as his exceptional narrative intuition and the density of his stories, arouse an expectation about the paths to be taken in the future by this author who is barely thirty-three years old.”—Revista Nexos
“Some explosive, original, and controversial pages…. The experience of reading this work is similar to that of listening to the radio on public transportation, with thousands of scenes, with thousands of thoughts, but with something that becomes addictive, that ties together the narration, that shares the quickness of a contagion and ends with the solitude of the individual that gets off at the next corner.”
“Carlos Velázquez is an author that appropriates elements of reality and adds a little bit of sarcasm, irony, criticism, and fiction to them in order to create characters situated in the most improbable scenarios, inside worlds that seem to belong to other dimensions.”—Excélsior
“Indebted to ‘la Literatura de la Onda’ and a good number of other currents that found their battlefield in marginalization, the prose of the Coahulian author is intended to provoke, to speak bluntly and freshly, like the northerners do.”—Vértigo
“Northern Mexico is not only the territory with the largest number of casualties in the war between the drug cartels and the Mexican police and military; it is also where a distinct and profoundly innovative kind of literature has grown, one that responds like few others do to the multiform reality of the world that founds—or, better yet, creates—realities at the unstoppable rate of globalization.… This crossroad is expressed through the recurring use of terms from the border language of mestizos, Spanglish, but with a style that surpasses and leaves behind its usual uses. Over this linguistic surface, Velázquez extends another thick layer of word games, changing meanings, and invented terms in the style of Lewis Carroll…. [Velázquez is] an unrestrained pyrotechnic who makes sparks fly in every moment.… The Cowboy Bible [is] a wild and effervescent text, a soup that boils until incandescent.”—El País
From a woman who tries to bet against the biggest drug lord in a city to a norteño who moves back to Mexico from New York to get rid of his gun, Velázquez juxtaposes the real and the absurd in a way that brings light to otherwise grim topics. And in many ways, this is the collection’s saving grace. Similar to Dennis Johnson’s Jesus Son, the stories deal with revelatory, intensely human themes. However, thanks to Velázquez’s inventiveness and ability to amend the ordinary, he creates a somewhat lighthearted world where serious topics are tackled with humor.
Throughout the collection, disparate elements mix together to create something larger than each individual part. With caustic lines like, “A caravan sponsored by Coca-Cola led the way, polar bears included,” Velázquez succeeds in a scrutinizing discourse that, with the addition of fantasy, allows readers to blithely follow the author’s polemic without being beaten over it. Call it modern magical realism or call it surrealistic, either way it is a small feat indeed.
Perhaps the best example of Velázquez’s ability to make something both lighthearted and serious is in the collection’s third story, “Reissue of the Original Facsimile of the Remastered Country Bible’s Back Cover.” In this story, the Country Bible is a woman who, thanks to her skills at online piracy, is featured on a reality TV show that pits contestants against each other based on their piracy skills. A communist, she then leads a popular uprising against the government where, in the end, she evades capture and becomes a neighborhood hero.
Many of Velázquez’s transposed circumstances – a journalist visiting a dive bar that leads to an alcohol drinking contest that destroys a town – seem to comment on the impermanence and absurdity of modern life. His collision of a few real concepts like online piracy or reality television become surreal, like a girl named the Cowboy Bible who partakes in a pubic shaving competition.
These strange circumstances are grounded in Velázquez’s straightforward prose. For example, we believe that, in the first story, the Cowboy Bible is used by a wrestler before his match to prepare for the ring. Except that it is not an ordinary typical wrestling match of brute force and strength; instead, it seems that the athletes fight with words.
However, straightforward Velázquez’s prose might be, he peppers his narrative with carefully constructed corporate catchphrases. By reusing words we see all the time in advertisements, he plays with meaningless of modern commercial brand fixation. Some choice examples are a character who bought her ticket into the world on TicketMaster or a person who, at the end of their life, only exists on YouTube. He takes this idea that nothing is sacred and runs with it, showing that even the things we cherish are worthless. These phrases simultaneously cast judgment on 21st Century life while sharing details that stick in your mind.
“The Cowgirl Bible knew that establishing herself in the USA was a task for talking machines. Satan’s powers were like those of Corona beer: It was unfazed by borders. Or perhaps as potent as the services offered by UPS (which was suddenly sit too). Evil depends on express delivery.”
Featuring elements of rock music, fighting, drugs and gangsters, the stories within the collection tend to echo each other. One man is tormented after his wife sleeps with the devil; another character in another story sells his wife to the devil for one night. Stories also echo real events. One story calls to mind William S. Burrough’s murder of his wife, with the roles reversed. Thanks to this clever interplay, the reader is encouraged to complete the whole collection, even if, at first glance, the stories don’t seem to be related.
With lines like, “I was born in a corner,” Velázquez’s prose jumps off the page. Whether he is casting judgment on 21st century ills of corporatism or highlighting the lack of agency of individuals, his writing grabs readers’ attention. The Cowboy Bible and Other Stories is a testament to modern magical realism that will delight the inner skeptic in all of us. - Alexandra Talty