The most powerful idea in Woodcuts of Women, Dagoberto Gilb's new collection of short stories, is that at long last, the macho gaze may be mutating into something both men and women can live with. Gilb, who got into writing after a 12-year stint as a union construction worker, doesn't always break free from the slave-to-my-libido stereotype, but his ability to evoke the arcane, magical properties of eros in the Southwest draws the reader into the stories. Like the one about Blanca, who "was sex and love . . . breasts and hips and lips"; or Maria, his boss at the suburban-mall department store; or Brisa, the mysterious runaway who prowls Sunset Boulevard at night. They are fragrant, flowering divas of a revised macho landscape, obscure objects of Spanglish desire.
Gilb's protagonists are friendly enough, guys who you could meet in a smoky cantina in El Paso, an airport lounge in Albuquerque, or by a pool in West Hollywood. They are the refreshingly intimate voices of the New West, the bicultural breeding grounds of border culture, where a detached American melancholy fuses with the howling passion of ancestors from "the blackened plain of the desert." While they are for the most part soft-spoken working types in the mold of Raymond Carvernot Oscar Hijuelos's fast-talking rumberos, nor Junot Díaz's sentimental roughnecksthey vary in their approach to women. In "Maria de Covina," the narrator is a laid-back wolf in the fold; in "Hueco," he's in love with two women at once; in "Mayela One Day in 1989," he is forced to watch his desired flirt with a lesbian in a gay club.
Woodcuts' storieshaving originally appeared in places like The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and The Threepenny Revieware finely crafted bursts of painterly prose that sometimes peter out before there is a real climax. Gilb can take your breath away in some passages, like the one in "Snow," where awakening to a New York snowstorm only stirs memories of abandoned Apache lands, grizzly bears, and the last surge of a glacier. There's even an unexpected leap out of his proletarian persona in "Bottoms," where the narrator frets hilariously about the dreary torment of book reviewing while being pursued by a "bigger than a very big girl," and a nipple-ringed "top." The erotica here is often effectively literal, but perhaps what is most arousing about these stories is Gilb's haunting search for self.