Form and Content
The subtitle to Gary Soto’s book Living up the Street explicitly states the form that the work takes: It is made up of narrative recollections about Soto’s own life. There are twenty-one of these recollections or essays, which cover about twenty-one years of his life and average about six pages in length. Soto arranged these short narratives or anecdotes in chronological order—beginning in Fresno, California, in 1957, when Soto was five years old, and ending in Mexico City sometime after the publication of his first book of poems in 1977. Photographs of Soto’s grade-school classes in 1959, 1963, and 1964 add a sense of authenticity to the stories, although Soto himself is never identified in the pictures. Nearly every essay centers on one particular event, whether it is a botched attempt to rob a friend’s sister or an unsuccessful tryout for a Little League baseball team. These short pieces do not force a moral on the reader; instead, Soto simply tells the story and allows the reader to make whatever judgments are necessary.
Even though Soto mentions briefly two famous people in his narrative—Lopez Portillo, the former president of Mexico, and Philip Levine, an award-winning American poet—the principal focus of the book is on Soto himself, as well as on the many working-class Chicanos and Anglos (Soto calls them “Okies”) who endured the harsh conditions of their environment. Marginalized characters such as Frankie T., who would “use a length of pipe to beat a woman in a burglary” as an adult, are sensitively portrayed by Soto because he recognizes that these are the people “no one wanted”; even the walls of their homes are indifferent to them. Soto chronicles the pain, the “general meanness” that results from living in a world in which manual labor is poorly paid and the pleasures of middle-class life, tantalizingly presented on television shows and in advertisements, are unattainable.
What saves this book from being a dull sociological study are Soto’s constant use of humor, his poetic but down-to-earth style of writing, and the very touching way that he speaks about loss and suffering. Although the author moves through time and space as the book develops, the strong, humorous, and compassionate voice of the writer remains the same.