“Fresno,” Gary Soto writes, “was made with what was left over after God made hell.” That remark comes near the end of this collection of short pieces, and its placement is significant. A Summer Llfe is no anger-laden attack on a hellhole of a birthplace. In fact, Soto’s remark will take many readers by surprise, so benign has been his vision of Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley. Anyone who has spent time, to say nothing of eighteen years of growing-up time, in the valley, has recollections of a place which defies yet welcomes human habitation. Fogs dwell there in the winter, so dense as to make the white lines on highways unseeable for a month. Schools close. Cars and trains smash together. The populace is a mix of Teutonic farmers, uprooted Oklahomans and Arkansans, Hispanic field workers, and blacks in flight from Los Angeles. Summers begin in late April with temperatures above one hundred degrees. Still, people thrive. Things grow there as they do few places in the world. Snow at thirteen thousand feet, only fifty miles to the east in the Sierra Nevada mountains, melts and replenishes the aquifer supplying row crops. A man with land can with resort to chemicals grow a lifetime’s income in cotton, potatoes, grapes, peaches, pistachios, tomatoes, and apples. If the valley is a hell, it is a hell of milk and honey.
Soto, however, is not much interested in the external environment except insofar as it shaped his private, little-boy consciousness. A look through several of Soto’s other books, both poetry and prose, suggests that childhood is his favorite topic. In “The Rhino,” one of the pieces in A Summer Life, Soto says “I was four and already at night thinking of the past.”
A Summer Life is a book of nostalgia for child- consciousness. Yet the touch is light and poetic in the bright adjective-to-every-noun mode which both brings Soto close to his early sensibility and renders it artificial. The target his writerly style tries to hit is the fresh first sensation a boy had of every new thing, whether ants, a blimp, taps on his shoes, or an uncle’s unwashed shirt. The pieces are short, two to three pages each, as prepared for publication in The World, a Sunday supplement to The San Francisco Chronicle, and similar magazines. Soto’s lower-middle- class Hispanic life in the 1950’s and 1960’s seems to have been relatively idyllic. His aesthetic is based on a nonaggression pact with reality. Each reader will be left to decide how successful the aesthetic is. Where it does not sentimentalize its subject, as it occasionally does, it serves.
For example, this treaty with the past declares hands-off a stepfather who is not what the dead father was. He is neither a useful presence nor a menace. He is what time happened to give little Gary, a man who emptied his pockets to the boy when coming in the door after work, drunk, naturally. What else would a man working eight hours stapling raisin boxes be at the end of the day? He would give the young Soto a fingernail clipper, and minutes later say, on seeing the tool: “I have one like that.”
These pieces are nostalgic not for people and places but for the blessed sensation of innocent transaction with the world. Uncles home from Korea were embedded in the flow of phenomena: “The Korean War was over, and after a year in Japan, our uncle was discharged. He returned with a porcelain Buddha, a tattoo of blue panther with red claws, and an army blanket for sleeping on our screened porch.” No deeper than this does Soto reach to probe the uncle’s being. He remains safe from his life in the boy’s bright apprehension. Issues of America using him, then discarding him to wander Fresno looking for old copper to sell, do not intrude. “We won’t,” Soto’s snapshot pieces say, “get sociological and mess up the art.” Certain kinds of pain are off limits.
Soto’s summer life is a continuum of relations with bric-a-brac—grandfathers, uncles, smiling statues of Buddha, tattoos, bicycle brake cables, catfish. Here memory is itself a kind of fishing for things in the depthless past; Soto’s retrieval of remote significances will stir readers who have their own store of erector sets, dolls, baseball gloves, and old shoes. Soto is after associations, evocations, the unsealed container holding...
(The entire section is 1788 words.)