Being a member of CCLaP’s extended family, I fully expected to enjoy reading Fernando A. Flores’ Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. After all, it’s not uncommon for writers who are published by the same press, like artists represented by the same gallery, to share an aesthetic sensibility. That said: I was shocked by how much I not only enjoyed, but personally related to Flores’ stories. How did this happen? Having grown up in Southeastern Ohio, I have only drunkenly stumbled into Texas twice in my life; and yet, Flores’ stories and characters were instantly recognizable to me. Such a collapsing of geographic distance is no easy thing for a writer, and Flores does it effortlessly.
Other than a publisher, what do Flores and I have in common? To begin with, we’re both serious music fans. And when I say this, I mean compulsive, downright fanatical music fans. To borrow a phrase from the story “Pinbag,” as a music fan, I pride myself on not wearing “that Ramones shirt everybody has (you know which one).” And as a writer, Flores doesn’t wear that shirt either. A flood of musical miscellany surges through every page of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. Here’s a very small sampling: Huddie Ledbetter, Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton, Nirvana’s Come As You Are, Weezer’s “Pinkerton” (I loved that album!), Seven Nation Army (I’m a HUGE White Stripes fan), Cat Power, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits’ “The Black Rider” (an often-overlooked gem), Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (I’ve snickered over that name many times), Bill Haley, and Buddy Holly. (For the love of Peggy Sue, why didn’t Cambridge, Ohio have a Buddy Holly lookalike contest for children? That would’ve been mine for the taking!)
But before I get too carried away, I should pause to clarify something. While Flores’ stories are primarily about music, they’re not about the glamorous side of the music industry. They’re not about fortune and fame, national tours, magazine spreads, groupies, or champagne brunches. They’re about people who live in trailer parks, work dead-end jobs, and drink too much too early in the day. There’s a common appellation for such people: losers. Perhaps you grew up around such loserdom: I sure did. (And if you’re not sure, here’s a good way to tell: do you know anyone who has ever donated Plasma? If so, welcome to the club!)
But the truth that reverberates out of every garage from Southwest Detroit to Southeastern Ohio to South Texas is that losers aren’t losers if they’re in a band. Being in a band is the greatest negation to loserdom ever invented. People who are in bands have something to be proud of. They’re not losers: they’re musicians. And their friends aren’t losers either: they’re bandmates. The collective feeling of being in a band makes people feel different, act different, be different. Flores captures this feeling perfectly in the collection’s opening story, “The House Band for the Hotel Cuerpo de la Paz,” when he says that the band felt, “like together they could have done anything…overthrown the government of a small nation…started a new wave in cinema or could have organized their own religion or cult or been professional gamblers or Wall Street prophets or valiant nights or the actual James Gang in the old west.”
A similar intense camaraderie is apparent within the band Bread8, whose unexpected involvement in a local election propels Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas to its crescendo. For the majority of Bread8’s story, the narrative appears to be accelerating towards a happy ending that involves a voter registration drive, a documentary film, and redemption. But near the end, as political chicanery turns into full-fledged political douchebaggery, any hope of a happy ending is dashed. Amidst the wreckage, Flores deftly ends the story by sounding a sad, realistic note of near-redemption and uttering a hilarious joke about a “male vagina.”
And while “Bread8 v. Copal Brandt (R.)” may be the collection’s crescendo, I suspect Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas’ overriding anthem appears within the story “The First Ever Punk Band in the World (Out of Raymondville).” In this story, Flores describes the short-lived punk band Legalize Wino, who sought to forge a career using “vague ideals and relying mostly on rawhide primitive instinct.” Such ideals and instinct are what fuels the youthful drive to create art; and thus, they’re the single most defining features of any artist’s aesthetic sensibilities.
(And by the way: how great is that cover?)