NONFICTION: A daughter looks at life with her violent and self-aggrandizing father.
Jose Venegas was a violent man who committed several murders, one of them cowardly and unforgivable. He was also a vain man who wrote his own corrido for himself — a traditional form of songwriting that valorizes the deeds of dashing and reckless criminals. He shot his first man at the age of 12 at his mother’s behest and lived his entire life putting his “honor” and reputation above the needs of his family. He insisted on a code of behavior that got his own son killed in a trivial dispute. He was also the father of author Maria Venegas, whose sharp observations and honesty in “Bulletproof Vest” make this tale of painful love and grudging respect unforgettable.
Venegas’ memoir is composed partly of short stories published elsewhere, so the book feels episodic: A scene in her childhood with her father leaving their Chicago home in the middle of the night, bloodied, almost dying, but still defiant and oddly self-absorbed after killing a man at a neighborhood party; Venegas in college and in her early career, where she discovers that the will and rage coursing through her blood is a help and a hindrance, getting her justice in civil disputes in Illinois and pointless street hassles when she moves to New York.
Through it all she maintains an eye for place and time — Williamsburg on the brink of massive gentrification; her father’s ranch, with its wind-sanded acres and part-time waterfall, its scruffy, fearless dogs and cows that get more tenderness than people, its chickens nestling in eucalyptus trees at dusk, the one long curved road into town, with its supply stores and cantinas full of music and tense gaiety. Venegas knows how the particulars of a place can wind themselves into your DNA.
Most of all, the story Venegas tells is how to love someone you cannot, should not, forgive. She does not shy away from the moral and emotional conflicts inherent in loving a father who has taken other fathers away from their own children. Her method is to understand, not to excuse. She tells her father’s story, illuminating the forces and beliefs that made him who he was — a mother who had to marry the man who raped her, whose own rage and will found outlet only in her sons’ perceived strength, an absorbed code of behavior at once extreme and crippling.
Venegas also traces her own path, from alienation to acceptance, even love. When Jose Venegas turns up after a 14-year absence, much of it spent in prison, Maria can barely stand to look at him, but the last line in the book has earned its emotional punch. “How did you know him?” she is asked, and replies, “He was my father.”
Venegas’ book is intelligent and evenhanded. She tries hard to empathize not just with her father, but also with his victims. In her next book, I hope she can take this a bit further and bring the same vividness to the losers of violent games as to the temporary winners. Then she will have not just a great memoir, or a moving corrido, but a novel.
Emily Carter is the author of “Glory Goes and Gets Some.”