Tales of Barranco Lagarto by Steven C. Levi

TalesLeviAccording to a note on the title page Tales of Barranco Lagarto (277 pages, Kindle) is a collection of stories which first appeared in The Coachella Post Gazette. The tales were handed down by one Horatio Shackleton, who died in 1925, and eventually assembled into a single collection by his grandson, Horatio Shackleton III. These characters are based on actual persons. Grandson Horatio is the mask which the “editor”—author Steven C. Levi—utilizes for his satirical tribute to a time gone by. The book concentrates on American culture in the southwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is not so much an intellectual history as a whimsical foray into a forgotten past, with the narrator’s twinkling eye always at the ready.

All these stories are to some extent “tall tales,” attempting irony and anti-climax in the manner of Mark Twain. Both setting and characters—most noticeably “the six scoundrels” of whom Horatio Shackleton was one—are woven through successive episodes. The original Horatio was banker and stout upstander of Agua Minerale, a town in the desert somewhere in Riverside County between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and situated alongside an ancient river bed known as the Barranco Lagarto. All of these landmarks have now disappeared.

The best insight into the book’s purpose comes in its last episode, with this concluding paragraph: “Today Agua Minerale is not even a distant memory. It has vanished from the maps of Southern California and the pages of our history books. In a blink of the eye of Father Time it came and went. Hopefully this book will, at least for a moment, bring back the wild and wooly days of Agua Minerale and have your lips curl into at least one smile” (277).

The stories tend to be lighthearted and funny, although at times confusing, and they contain a forest of topics including real history, despite the words “a faux history” which appear on the title page. The precise intention of “faux history” is not clear. Scoundrels and their exploits are probably legendary, but much in this account is actually historical and interesting. There are nuggets of information about such topics as Teddy Roosevelt, ancient and present day sharks, the Unitarian church, Pancho Villa, smuggling gold and liquor in the deserts of the southwest, and the devastating early 20th century Spanish Flu.

Most of the characters are “absquatulaters,” a word basically meaning to abscond, and which is another way of saying “scoundrels.” Absquatulaters have come to the Agua Minerale and the Barranco Lagarto area from the south, mid-west, and Europe seeking to liberate themselves from the Confederate forces, law enforcement, or wives and offspring. As a group they are mostly interested in doing what they feel like, with no interference from the federal government and its various branches, so that fooling and manipulating representatives of the government in various ways resembles a high and hilarious sport within the Agua Minerale community. These tales emanate a kind of “good ole boy” humor toward these rascals who are simultaneously rugged desert types plus interested in a buck whenever they can find it. They are also willing to come together as a community in dealing with the government as necessary.

In method, Tales of Barranco Lagarto concentrates on exposition or explanation. Episodes such as “The Lynching of Ramon Ricardo Jerome Maria De Madrone Late of The State of Chihuahua and The Richest Man in Agua Minerale—on Paper,” “Thaddeus Perspemunger, Editor of the Agua Minerale Gazette,” and “The Absquatulaters of Rancho de la Mar” are not fiction in the sense of building setting, character, and drama. They are essays with tongue-in-cheek perspectives. As literary fiction, Tales of Barranco Lagarto aspires to something more like Life on the Mississippi than Pudd’nhead Wilson, in that Life on the Mississippi exhibits Twain’s penchant for humor and anecdote while being primarily expository rather than dramatic.

Following is an example of the story’s style from the story titled “High Constable Harold Gibraltar, The Right Wrong Man for Agua Minerale”:

Some men are born for greatness; others to hang.  Some are just damn lucky.  Harold Gilmore Gibraltar was the last of these.  Never in his entire life was he ever in the right spot at the wrong time.  He was always in the right spot at the right time even if it was for the wrongest of reasons.  His timing was impeccably perfect. Even more important to the saga of his success, he had the uncanny ability to be an empty pitcher when such was required to be filled.  He was a chameleon of opportunity.  When the opportunity appeared he slid into it as if he [sic] had been made for him.

This was not, it should be quickly added, a knack that developed late in life.  More accurately, it was in his DNA, as is said these days.  Born on 29th of February, the rarest of days, he was the son of a Post Office clerk in Toldeo [sic], Ohio and had a blacksmith for a father. Between the two of them a modest income was earned.  Harold, with a brother and a half, had an education that was equivalent to his parents’ place in the community.  Which meant he made it through elementary school.  As soon as he could he joined the United States Army and had the good fortune to be part of the American assault on Cuba. While not a brave man he was not a coward either.  He saw his share of combat and received three wounds, all superficial and none life threatening.   Because of his wounds he was recommend [sic] for promotion to Corporal.  However, somehow, when his paperwork arrived at headquarters in Washington D. C., the word “corporal” was misread as “colonel” and Gibraltar leapt over hundreds of more qualified men into the rank of officer.  By the time the mistake was discovered, Gibraltar had mustered out so, rather than admit a mistake had been made, the paperwork was buried in the archives.  Gibraltar, nevertheless, received a colonel’s severance (111).

At times Tales of Barranco Lagarto can be confusing due to the length and rambling nature of the material. It also needs editing to catch numerous errors. These problems sit alongside vigorous phrasing such as “chameleon of opportunity.” Also, a chapter can wander and threaten coherence. For example, the story just quoted, “High Constable Harold Gibraltar, The Right Wrong man for Agua Minerale” (pages 111-128) covers several topics over approximately a thirty year period. Detail is profuse and inclined to wander, as indicated in the following summary.

This tale begins in 1903 with Harold Gibraltar as cop in Los Angeles. Eventually he becomes a constable in Agua Minerale, where we will learn how he is the “right wrong man.” But first—with a typical introduction to a digression—the narrator comments that some historical background is necessary, and the account moves into Pancho Villa’s Mexico. At that time Mexico’s president was not popular and facing a rival Pancho Villa supported. Explanation continues with an account of Villa’s quarrels and exploits inside Mexico’s political turmoil of this time. In typical asides, further history of Mexico is sketched, as with the creation of The United Fruit Company, and from there to Villa’s attacking a town in New Mexico, which led to an invasion of Mexico by General “Black Jack” Pershing.

The account then moves to US relations with the developing Mexican governments in an overall time of continuing chaos. Eventually, based on a bogus US position that the Coast Guard was not allowing arms to flow across the seas to Pancho Villa (the conflict was occurring entirely on land), the President of Mexico demanded the US Coast Guard stop arms flowing across the California border.

Thus a coast guard station was established in Agua Minerale, although it was desert, and the man to run it was “the right wrong man” (one who understood the importance of pretense while doing nothing), Harold Gibraltar.  From here we move back to how Constable Gibraltar admirably performed his job, including his involvement with other community members, in for example protecting illegal liquor and conniving against federal officials. Harold was also involved in a pig scam, which is extensively described, and which assisted the community in getting rid of a noxious pig industry springing up at the beginning of the Depression. He did so despite the pig farmer’s persistence in trying to get his industry going, so that Gibraltar was both “right” in the eyes of the community and “wrong” in the sense of being one of the “six scoundrels” of Agua Minerale.

Basically, the narrator of these Tales never saw a digression he didn’t relish. These tours into historical information often include comical language and asides, but at times a problem can develop as one digression leads to another, and a reader may become distracted from where the tale started and where it’s going. This tendency could cause re-reading or attempts to locate the center and intention of a particular episode, so as to make sense of it in terms of what the author wants to convey.

Overall, Tales of Barranco Lagarto employs a humorous and nostalgic view of southwest culture and behaviors, including political attitudes and dedication to personal freedom that still play strongly in America’s concerns for what the country should be. The narrator obviously admires his grandfather as vintage absquatulater and salt of the earth. With a kind of charming glee he chronicles the exploits of rugged individuals and rogues long known and admired as part of America’s heritage from the old west.

-Peter Bollington, author of Mechanic of Fortune 2012

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