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The King is Always Above the People: Stories

Review

The King is Always Above the People: Stories

Daniel Alarcón’s writing glitters, both with the loveliness of his language and the sharpness of his wit. He has been well-recognized for his skill, having been named one of 37 under the age of 36, 39 under 39, and 20 under 40. His new story collection THE KING IS ALWAYS ABOVE THE PEOPLE, longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, suggests that he only gets better with time.

The book takes place in a mesmeric space, roots emerging from Latin American tradition and experience to intertwine and form stories that resonate across certain cultures. In each of his 10 stories, he doesn’t quite solidify place but suggests at it, and in so doing deftly weaves societal observation and political implications that speak to ancient history, recent history and the present.

In “The Ballad of Rocky Rontal,” a young boy struggling to support his family becomes enmeshed in gang violence. The story unfolds step by devastating step, until all parties are too far gone to ever recover, and forgiveness becomes a personal struggle. The narrative is the fictionalized account of the profile of a real gang member Alarcón wrote in 2016, and within this collection the truth itself feels all the more plausible: an individual tragedy rendered translatable into too many other contexts, borne forward in an ongoing cycle.

"I came away from the book feeling that each of these stories is vicious and exquisite, and they form a stellar collection."

In “Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot,” perhaps one of Alarcón’s more inventive tales, time shifts aside to permit a young man currently struggling with the loss of his job and on the brink of a breakup to grapple with the sudden death of his former lover, Abraham Lincoln. The nationwide devastation is rendered intimate and introspective, the magnitude of Lincoln’s presence and murder at the end of the Civil War transmuted into the loss of a long-since-ended taboo love affair; in Alarcón’s hands, it resonates as profoundly innovative and tender.

And in the title story, Alarcón explores migration and identity through the eyes of a young man who finds himself participating in a small corner of his political system. The wry meaning of the title reverberates throughout the collection as it explores familiar and unfamiliar narratives through fresh perspectives.

Some of Alarcón’s stories have the brevity and clarity of prose poems, others sprawl across nations and desires. Within each, he demonstrates his understanding of psyche, purpose and the pervasive purposelessness of why we might harm each other. Overall, I did wish he allowed women to have a voice in the universe of his stories. He writes about women with compassion, but often with distance, never truly making room to explore their lived experiences. Instead, women in his stories are relegated to the exhausted role of fulfilling a narrative need for male protagonists: he needs to avenge her, he needs to be responsible for her, he needs to protect her, or he needs her to make himself “feel like a man.” I did become disappointed that Alarcón did not turn his expert eye towards female characters, and allowed them to become, on the whole, secondary to his male protagonists. This singular criticism will stick with me.

However, I came away from the book feeling that each of these stories is vicious and exquisite, and they form a stellar collection.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on November 3, 2017

The King is Always Above the People: Stories
by Daniel Alarcón

  • Publication Date: October 31, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 1594631727
  • ISBN-13: 9781594631726