The Body is a Conduit of Pain: Reyes Ramirez’ The Book of Wanderers Explores Traumas and Systemic Inequality in Every Possible Future

By: Anthony Isaac Bradley & Valerie Wardh
University of Arizona Press, $16.95, 2022, 182. pp. Paper Buy the book here.
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As part of the Camino Del Sol Latinx Literary Series, Reyes Ramirez’ debut collection The Book of Wanderers offers readers a versatile selection of stories that explore class, race, and the intrinsically-linked idea of structural inequality.

Structured in three parts, Wanderers opens with the saga of a Lucha Libre dynasty, “The Three Masks of Iturbide Villalobos.” As many family dynasties do in Lucha, wrestler marries wrestler, continuing the family business for generations to come (there is no escape). The grandfather/patriarch, El Lobo, paves the way for his son, The Marvel. In turn, the story is told from the point of view of the next-in-line, who finds his father’s behavior less than inspiring. Anyone who knows the business of professional wrestling knows that the wrestlers, luchadors, whatever you want to call them, are not to be trusted and The Marvel is no different.

Ramirez plays with the idea of reality in this story collection. Here, The Marvel justifies his awful behavior at home with soliloquies on what is real and what isn’t as the son watches him interact amicably with children in the audience. He himself is stretched out, forced into painful wrestling holds and otherwise ignored:

A wrestler is a liar in that he tells stories with his body. He only makes it seem he is hurting his opponent. I’m such a great liar because every one of my lies has a bit of me in them. You see, I don’t lie to protect myself. I’m no coward. I lie to be honest about what I can’t say or do otherwise.

Ramirez uses short-burst descriptions of physicality in-between the declarations of love and turmoil between the characters. A unique aspect of the story, the author is almost doing a play-by-play commentary that is no different from what is heard at the matches in Arena México:

The resulting pressure of the folded right knee pinched down on their left ankle so that Rosa could use this as leverage to bend backward, her body arched over enough for my mother’s hands to clasp around her opponent’s neck, torso jutting up toward the ceiling. Her skin stuck to her ribcage as though wings attempted to break out into flight. Her opponent’s legs were tangled in a knot, and their head bent back. My mother’s black hair spilled over their face as though devouring them. Their arms flailed until they feebly slapped the mat in surrender.

All this torture–both physical and mental–is rooted in a statement that may or may not be true: “the body is a conduit of pain.” This quote from The Marvel is either a hard truth or a perversion of it, meant to justify selfish behavior. The son, who finds his way into the ring by the story’s end, has little chance of escaping his destiny.

Section I continues this rumination on direction with “The Last Known Whereabouts of Ricardo Falfurrias” which centers on Ricardo, who attempts to leave Texas by saving money from cleaning predominantly white schools and by pawning his deceased father’s purple heart medal. The latter is let go for a humiliating paltry amount of cash:

They settled on fifty dollars after Ricardo told the owner his dad died in the Iraq War, having bled to death in the streets of Fallu Jah. “Al-Qaeda laughed in the bombed-out buildings,” Ricardo said. That last part wasn’t true, but he didn’t care. He’s looking out for himself. He’s lying to me, too. Two lies make a nothing, and everyone gets to go on with their lives.

“I appreciate his service,” the owner said as Ricardo walked out. Ricardo laughed.

With enough money for a bus ticket, Ricardo has to wait another day to depart. This downtime is the crux of the story, as he seeks more work opportunities instead of sitting idly by. Ramirez brings the pain of repeated, menial tasks to the foreground. Ricardo’s lifting and carrying, this physicality, runs throughout the stories in Wanderers as each body survives or doesn’t. But Ramirez does not lump everyone together, as Ricardo struggles to find a place to land among these low-paid workers:

All the Mexicans and Guatemalans and Salvadorans eat separately, sitting alongside a wall away from each other. That weirds him out. Aren’t we the same? How poor we are? How much we don’t have? I don’t know. I guess not. Do I sit with the Mexicans? The Salvadorans?

Eventually, he finds himself in a world of hipsters, having found a restroom attendant gig while waiting for his bus date. Both the displaced workers and the hipsters have mismatched clothing, obviously for different reasons, fashion statement vs hand-me-downs. Poverty is always on the outskirts of trendiness:

poor people sleeping on dirty towels or newspapers next to an apartment complex that looks expensive with shiny Benzes and ridiculously big trucks parked near them. It seems like they’re building more expensive places because crews are destroying old homes, their remains lying around … [how] do you build more places people can’t afford when we’re dying in the sun?” In the end, Ricardo makes his way onto the bus, the engine “singing something in some language Ricardo can’t speak yet. Maybe every engine is telling everyone to keep going farther and farther, away from where you are.

Part II of the collection showcases the fantastical, the horrifying, and the mundane. The second story, “Xitlali Zaragoza, Curandera,” follows a waitress moonlighting as a folk healer. Unlike a typical curandera, this story’s protagonist sleuths out the root cause of supernatural disturbances instead of simply addressing their symptoms. Her journey has shades of noir and cosmic horror; the more “cases” she “solves,” the more unpleasant truths she must face about a spiritual evil that encroaches on a city where “the light from the sleepless metropolis fights with the darkness of the cosmos above.” Incidentally, that city is Houston, the author’s hometown and location of several stories in Wanderers. Ramirez uses this haunted setting to explore trauma and family estrangement.

The last section of Wanderers, while exploring outlandish concepts, remains grounded in reality. “Ximena DeLuna v. The New Mars Territory” is a standout. Unlike other pieces in the collection, which are traditional narratives, the format of this story mimics a legal document outlining a court case (a la Brown v. Board of Education). Still, the piece does not suffer for a lack of dialogue or evocative imagery. Despite the dry presentation, it captures attention in the same way as a probing documentary that shines a light on a scandal: each new detail is more outrageous than the last. As the title suggests, Ramirez has chosen a futuristic, off-world setting as the backdrop for this story’s open confrontation of racial segregation, continuing a tried and true tradition of using science fiction as a vehicle for hot-button socio-political themes.

The premise of “The Latinx Paradox within Joaquín Salvatierra” revolves around the use of “Hispanic” soldiers as test subjects for advanced mecha suits, all tools for colonizing Mars. Non-white soldiers are able to operate higher-level suits. No one can say why, though you have to wonder if this “scientific finding” is just an excuse to place a certain subset of people on the frontline and at risk. To showcase this brutality, Ramirez paints an eerie picture of the dead who are entombed in their mecha suits:

Spc. Gómez is still in his suit, his body all out of blood. A red light blinks near his contorted face, indicating the suit is still operational but out of energy. He seems to be deeply sleeping now, so deep that it hurts. The gore and bits of Lt. Armstrong droop off rocks and leaves. “Está bien. Todo bien, mijo.”

In a scene that is all too believable in its cruelty, Joaquín witnesses an AWOL soldier forced to walk about naked on the surface of Mars:

[the atmosphere] Slowly stripped away his skin by pieces. He collapsed, and his body decayed at five times the speed a normal body decomposes. His particles rose to the sky, like rain from the ground sucked into clouds.

Despite the horror of the situation, Ramirez gives the soldier’s death an ethereal feel, as if they were never present on the battlefield in the first place. Like many of the characters in Wanderers, from the rudos to the folk healers, the pain of their existence is left thick in the air.

Anthony Isaac Bradley & Valerie Wardh

Anthony Isaac Bradley’s work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Coachella Review, and other lovely places. He’s a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives with his cat and the ghost of another. He is the Reviews Editor at Infrarrealista Review.

Valerie Wardh is a writer in Austin, Texas. She has a bachelor of English and German from Texas State University. She dabbles in tarot and builds little worlds for her gecko friends.

Featured image by: @Devo Unsplash

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