Aaron Michael Morales, Drowning Tucson
Publisher: Coffee House Press
2010, 310 pages, paperback, $16

in drowning tucson, emerging author Aaron Michael Morales depicts the desperation, loneliness, and ugly side of South Tucson. These illustrations are difficult to take in. The hopelessness and sense of confinement of the novel’s characters provide images that differ from the stereotypical caricatures seen on the evening news and in movies. In the streets of Tucson, Arizona, qualities such as respect, loyalty, and family are the glue that holds this dysfunctional and violent world together. Morales integrates these aspects clearly and simply with straightforward prose.

Drowning Tucson doesn’t come off like an after-school special warning readers about the dangers of violence in gangs, the horniness of working men, and the loneliness of being a resident of South Tucson. Morales doesn’t sound like a preacher or even a concerned teacher. Instead, he is a patient observer, offering his readers the life-details of characters most people wouldn’t consider worth noting. Morales’ novel is peopled with the ignorant, greedy, violent, and desperate, and he has no shame in putting these qualities on display. The reader encounters naïve school children, respected military men, a struggling prostitute, a disillusioned gang member, and a pedophiliac ice-cream truck driver, each one offering a different perspective of life in Tucson.

The novel is aptly named. The characters know their lot in life, and unlike most protagonists who try to escape or rise above their plight, the characters in Drowning Tucson struggle to accept their destiny. They are characters suffocating, drowning in—of all places to drown—a city with no large body of water, a desert. But Morales does not stop with drowning his characters. He continues to drown his readers, as well, with wave after wave of helplessness.

In terms of narrative technique, the point of view shifts throughout the story, causing the reader to sometimes feel like a swimmer in a whirlpool with his sense of direction thrown off course. Through this design, the reader isn’t allowed to become comfortable with one character, instead experiencing a jarring variety of thoughts, motives, and actions.

Tucson is not a large city, and because it’s not necessarily a familiar cityscape for urban tales, the city as the backdrop for these narratives makes the collection of vignettes all the more intriguing. Like Morales’ characters who are backed into a corner, the city of Tucson is backed up against a wall of mountains. This is a city that seems insignificant and mundane, but Morales colors his stories with concrete locations. It becomes difficult to think of these tales as only fiction.

Drowning Tucson is a continuous answer to the question, “What does it truly mean to be human?” The book proclaims: Sure, for many people life isn’t desperate and grim, but it’s during these moments of duress that real character is discovered and developed. This insistence is what makes Drowning Tucson a difficult but rewarding read. Morales forces us to sympathize with his characters and to look at our own lives and revalue them.

—Robert J. Zertuche