The Cowboy Bible by Carlos Velázquez, translated by Achy Obejas, was published by Restless Books in January. Matt Bucher is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Alberto Pazzi is a Mexican artist who lives in New York; his work will be featured in the book Collage Mexico, forthcoming from Mexico City Lit.
In the beginning, the camera turns toward the luchador. A writer-turned-DJ-turned-wrestler, sotol still in hand, drives his elbow into your face. He says “I’m Lagunero. I’m rudo—a thug, a rascal. I’m a Menace.” What is going on? This is the way you enter the consciousness of readers. Wrapped inside a little neon collection of stories is something branded The Cowboy Bible, and its numinous sections are labeled “fiction”, “non-fiction”, and “neither fiction nor nonfiction.” This apocrypha marks the US debut of Mexican writer and raconteur Carlos Velázquez.
It is too cute to call him a prankster. He is La Diva. In English we grapple for a comparison: he is a sex-obsessed Mexican iteration of Mark Leyner. He is the post-postmodern Bukowski of his own bar in PopSTock!—the region he, of course, invented. His stories are the hard-drinking Spanglish cousins of Faulkner, Houllebecq, and Terry Southern. He piles on absurdity and zany asides to make a slapstick literary encounter par excellence. It’s Trout Fishing in America set in a telenovela only imagined in the machismo mind. Obviously it’s pointless to keep grappling for a comparison since true artists have none.
In the days when Hemingway was struggling to write his first novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby. The young Hemingway was discouraged that this contemporary of his had maybe just published The Great American Novel. But, Hemingway took solace in the fact that Fitzgerald was no literary radical. His subject may have been modern, but his style was not. There was still room for a pugnacious fallen-angel to innovate. Because we cannot predict them, there is always room for more pioneers.
The Cowboy Bible is a thing and a person and an ethos and a crime and somehow a book and a book within the book of the same title. Linguistically, Velazquez intentionally operates at the margins of what a translator is capable of transforming. The edges are still ragged. And this translator, Achy Obejas, shows us where Velazquez has almost kicked her ass.
“As a practitioner of piracy, The Country Bible tried to live covertly, like an infiltrator. She swung between the cool underground flavor of the marmalade of torture so that she could dedicate herself fully to the proletarian struggle, to her top spot serving breaded potatoes at the chicken joint.”
Of course any book can be translated. Hell, some sad soul translated Finnegans Wake into Japanese. Or tried to. But Velázquez picks up the raw material of colloquial Spanish and twists it together with Norteño aphorisms, pop culture portmanteaus, and his own slang nicknames for everything to create a wholly original Joycean method of expressing himself.
Beyond the luchadors, Velázquez imagines a girl whose pubic hair is so out of control that she must devote her life to taming it. She masters the epilator the way Jimi Hendrix mastered the guitar. In fact, she performs her depilatory shows on stage with a similar verve and to ever-growing crowds. She becomes a legend not just for her natural (or unnatural) growth but because she knows she is a once-in-a-lifetime star. Her suave attempts to massacre the “wild vertical porcupine” down below lead her to dominate the national contest called “Shave Your Triangle.” Her first razor was a “red Yamaha with white frets.”
Like other artists in possession of a precious soul to sell, this bush-sculptor ends up at the crossroads, la encrucijada, face-to-face with the cash-wielding devil himself. “Crossroad” is documentary she stumbles upon while channel surfing late at night. On one side of the X the camera pans to reveal a bar, with a blind bartender, serving only cola. Out in front, the stand-in for Robert Johnson pretends to play guitar on a stick. Somewhere nearby is a boot store that sells—or used to sell—lice-skin boots and Cowboy-Bible-skinned boots. Now nothing is there. If the devil appears out front on schedule, any request as possible—just so long as it is submitted by someone sober. Back up, maybe the bar in the desert only serves coke (and a toke) and this little TV-narrative (“prepared by Lexus and based on a plan boosted by Harper Collins”) is the first step in a mumbling psychologist’s attempt at regression hypnosis to convince The Cowgirl Bible to actually convert to black magic and worship Satan. Perhaps the devil is just Old Don Paulino or her sugar-daddy manager. Perhaps she really is a musician. What is reality, etc.?
All of this takes place in only a few pages in the mind of one of Velázquez’s morbidly hairy characters. The complexity and neural chaos of a single page can often be overwhelming. Quality vs. quantity. To further complicate matters of consumption, Velázquez has crafted an entire fictional universe and we English readers are privy only to this small volume so far. So when he refers to the singing hero of his first collection (Cuco Sanchez) or hints at what is to come in La marrana negra de la literatura rosa or El karma de vivir en el norte, we can either guess at the ramifications or grasp at the Espanol version.
John Ashbery writes: “To be a writer and write things / You must have experiences you can write about. / Just living won’t do.” Velázquez personifies the escritor who experiences life not just so he can write about it, but whose writing lives in service to the experience of being alive in a body. He doesn’t just live, he turns life back into a relivable experience of imagination and pleasure.
Carlos Velázquez is a fiery innovator, a zeugmatic radical. His stories a brief but they pack a walloping dose of genuine courage. He is a rockstar cabron who coins verbs (humangenomemap), spawns nouns (punkospine), lives on and off the page and the stage—and his musical instrument is The Cowboy Bible.