Born in Lima and raised in Alabama, Peruvian-American writer Daniel Alarcón has always followed his own internal GPS: mapping out exquisite if conventional stories in the mode of Jhumpa Lahiri, or shocking his characters with a George Saunders-like narrative Taser. Longlisted for the National Book Award this year, his new collection, “The King Is Always Above the People,” delivers on every level, from the intricate to the inventive, from the subtle to the sublime.
Most of the stories are set in an unnamed Latin American country, with various locales — a capital, a port, suburbs and slums — as jumping-off points for his exploration of social tensions. Each piece proclaims Alarcón’s virtuosity, as in this miniature portrait of a pious landlord: “I had seen him prepare for services each Sunday with a meticulousness that can only come from great and unquestioned faith. A finely scrubbed suit, shirts of the most pristine white. He would comb a thick pomade into his black hair so that in the sun he was always crowned with a gelatinous shine.”
Alarcón experiments with perspective, too, as in the first-person plural “The Thousands” and the second-person “The Ballad of Rocky Rontal.” “The Auroras,” arguably the collection’s strongest, employs a close third-person point of view as it tracks a dispirited poetry professor who kindles an affair with a married woman whose secrets are many, flipping the script on sexual predation.
But it’s Alarcón’s first-person narrators that give the collection its velocity and vulnerability in the face of love, lust, fear and cruelty. “Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot” re-imagines the 16th president as an ambitious 21st-century politician cut down in his prime, viewed through the lens of a jilted gay lover. A play bookended by fiction, “The Provincials” portrays a young man’s journey to his ancestral town, plumbing one family’s painful relationship to place. In “The Bridge,” the accidental death of a middle-aged man’s blind uncle forces him to confront his toxic relationship with his father, who is withering away in an asylum: “I had no idea how those confined against their will to a hospital for the criminally insane might make use of a rare day of bright, limpid sun … perhaps glide across the open yard, its yellow grass ceding territory each day to the bare, dark earth, these so-called gardens, each inmate just one man within a ballet much larger, much lonelier than himself.”
In dazzling prose, then, “The King Is Always Above the People” mulls weighty philosophical questions, but through intimate personal dramas that Alarcón deftly teases out to surprise endings, a David Lynch-style menace and surrealism brewing beneath the surface of everyday lives. There’s daring and defiance in these stories, a beauty that will make your soul soar, as Alarcón ascends steadily to the top tier of American writers.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing,” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
The King Is Always Above the People
By: Daniel Alarcón
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 240 pages, $27.