Reading Luis Negrón's Mundo Cruel is akin to walking the only corridor in some crumbling motel in Puerto Rico where the beach has begun to take back the building. The doors have all disintegrated, and each private room is suddenly public, but still small, self-contained, and bearing only enough evidence to hint at the lives of its inhabitants. You walk along, entering each room, seeing the unmade beds, smelling the old smoke in the curtains. Witnessing what love or horror happens there. In one room, a cluster of junkies. In another, two worried mothers gossiping. One room contains a river for baptisms. In the second-to-last, toward the end of the hall, a man is quietly dying. In the last room, a Land Rover is parked on a nightclub dance floor. There are sand-drifts in the hallway.
It is interesting that the overall sensation the book produces is one of spying on the lives of others, because for much of Mundo Cruel, the narrators of the stories seem to be offering up secrets voluntarily, almost compulsively. In the first story, “The Chosen One,” the narrator is a cocky teenage boy who brags about his sexual exploits, his seductions of various cousins and Christian choir boys. The desperate family bemoans this flamboyant son and the white women's sandals he wears to his baptism. Religious intervention, of course, proves useless: “Among the rocks there was a beer can. Some river shrimp clung to an old tennis shoe. I saw the preacher's feet in his blue rubber flip-flops. Then he took me out of the water and held me for a second in his arms. 'You are clean,' he said to me, and winked.”
This tongue-in-cheek tone is the major narrative weapon in many of the stories, as in the title story, where the night belongs to “the most fabulous and spectacular boys in the bar,” who fluctuate between impenetrable machismo and episodes of outright weeping. The story is without doubt the collection's funniest, as it skewers the cliques and prejudices that inevitably invade gay culture. These are gay men who are horrified by gay others: “Almost at the entrance to the formerly exclusive (men pay ten, women thirty, get my drift?) and super 'in' bar, they saw the first sign that the world, their world, was going straight to hell. Six lesbian couples, with their cell phones on their belts, were entering.” Another story, “So Many, or On How the Wagging Tongue Sometimes Can Cast a Spell” eavesdrops on a pair of neighbors devouring gossip about the alarming number of gay kids in the neighborhood, and the possibility of sending them to a camp in Florida so they'll come back “nice and straight.” Their ignorance is funny. We as readers are invited to join in the ridiculing. We are willing and happy eavesdroppers.
But an open invitation to spy, or a narrator's eager dispensing of secrets, doesn't necessarily create that feeling in the gut that you've just stumbled into something that was supposed to stay hidden. That feeling comes from the odd moment in a story when true vulnerability shrinks reality to a peephole, a moment of helplessness that turns us into voyeurs. It must be that second or two when we would normally look away, when someone's pain becomes too intimate and we find a shoelace to tie or a magazine to flip through, that gives the collection its power. Because it's in this moment that Negrón glues our eyelids open and binds our hands. Toward the end of the book we find “The Garden,” a dense, sweet, sad story in which the narrator's lover is dying of AIDS. Death is an easy way to add depth, to slow the pace, to make meaning. But Negrón does not linger or lean on it. He lets the physical fact, the texture of death be its own emotion: “His bones felt fragile. Body, host. Orchard fed with alien nutrients. I sought his face, kissed the dry sores, brushed away an eyelash that rested on his cheek....The disposable diapers, stuck to us, sounded like the rustling of dead leaves.” It's like coming across buried glass in the sand, these scattered pieces of unrehearsed and undecorated sadness that force you to walk slower, look closer, and reconsider the ground you've been walking on.