Life and lightning


Breathing, In Dust by
Tim Z. Hernandez is a bittersweet contemplation of contrast in the dusty farming hinterland of the Golden State


Breathing, In Dust
Tim Z. Hernandez
2010, Texas Tech University Press
176 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

TIM HERNANDEZ has witnessed what he has written, making this squealing pig of a novel roaming the marginalised Californian hinterland an exceptional achievement but also one that is very personal.

The grit and dust thrown up by his work rake the reader’s throat and scour his eyes as he strains to focus on the images of abandon that characterise one face of America’s most abundant state.

Breathing, In Dust is a story about contrast, or rather about the mean hopelessness endured by the poor in a land otherwise of plenty, the Golden State.

Through his central character, Tlaloc, Hernandez navigates the region’s underbelly, mingling with its trash under the unforgiving sun and bathing uncomfortably in its arid poverty, a kind of raw Steinbeck for the postmodern age. Tlaloc’s perspective has been shaped by the desperate realities found in the fictional farming community of Catela, and the experiences of the itinerant migrant workers following the seasons from Wyoming’s beet fields to the vineyards of Central Valley.

Unwitting narrator

The young man’s indelible encounters with wetbacks, exploited workers, white trash and the anonymous drifters that populate this world transform him into an unwitting narrator as he comes of age with the stench of sweat in his nostrils from this land of pain and plenty.

Tlaloc – the Aztec god of rain, fertility and water loved for giving life, but feared for his ability to unleash lightning – is surrounded by alienation, drug abuse and the crushed hopes of his friends and family. He escapes through the portraits he begins to write about the coyotes and cockroaches around him, a biographical reference perhaps to Hernandez’s own background.

Until he was seven, Hernandez’s parents were migrant farm-workers, also following the seasons across the American south-west through California, Oregon, Wyoming, and Colorado. The sound of Catela is not unlike that of Cutler – in which the author lived, among other places – when rendered with a Spanglish accent.

There is destruction, but there is also fertility here. Beneath the squalid surface of the characters lie moments of kindness, compassion, dreams and sweet aromas. Hernandez reveals an understanding of the people that inhabit this world that displays considerable insight about the contradictions that can exist in life, and he cleverly magnifies these through the starkness of the landscape that he sketches.

His evocative and graphic descriptions and the telling and disturbing moments that subvert the mundane demonstrate his potent skill as a writer. Tasked with cleaning his ancient grandmother’s wound following her mastectomy, the young Tlaloc is unnerved by the sudden appearance of a maggot. He is wrong-footed by the scary Horacio – a large, unblinking dough kneader – whom he accompanies distributing bread for his friend’s panaderia and who is capable of surprising acts of kindness.

At root, Hernandez is writing about the seen and the unseen: the visible prosperity of California yet the unseen bleakness of life for so many of its inhabitants; the seen squalor of their lives, yet the unseen hope in their hearts; the beauty that can be concealed by ugliness; the poetry that can be found in the spiritually bereft.

This insight is a Latino gift, and the author has embarked consciously with it in Breathing, In Dust on a journey that can take him to a place where the very soul of American literature resides.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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