Book Review: The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue: Stories

In a word, it's exquisite

The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue: Stories

The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue: Stories

by Manuel Muñoz

Algonquin, 239 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Although Manuel Muñoz's newest book comprises 10 lean short stories, it might take some readers longer than usual to get through them. Each one lingers, staying with you like memories stirred from the scent in a lost loved one's shirt.

Like his critically acclaimed Zigzagger (Northwestern University Press, 2003), the somewhat interrelated stories in The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue take place in the small, predominantly working-class Mexican and Mexican-American towns of California's Central Valley, where Muñoz grew up. Each of his wonderfully drawn characters is surviving a heartbreak: a mother caring for her mortally injured son after his motorcycle accident and the secrets she finds among his belongings; adult siblings awkwardly reconnecting after years of estrangement, each offering gestures to re-create their family; a proud father who loses everything during a family vacation; a man forced into the care of his aging father after a workplace accident and his father's desperation to revive his son's disabled body. Muñoz doesn't offer a quick drive-by to gawk at his character's situations but draws readers to that place where his characters must exist after the source of their pain has long past, the morbidly curious have fallen away, and the hard, lonely work of grieving and, more importantly, learning to survive must occur. Thankfully, it's not pity that Muñoz evokes but empathy – a deep, visceral understanding of what his characters have experienced, are experiencing.

The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue is an emotionally exhausting read yet a strangely rewarding one. In a word, it's exquisite. No word is wasted. No time is lost on wrong turns or temporary lapses. There are no worst of the best stuffed in the middle of the volume in hopes that the reader will forget by the time they reach the end. Each one of Muñoz's absorbing stories is bittersweet and as beautiful and spare as an Amish table. It's no wonder it's short-listed for the 2007 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

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The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue: Stories, Manuel Muñoz, Algonquin

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