Casares, Oscar 1964–
Casares, Oscar 1964–
PERSONAL: Born 1964, in Brownsville, TX. Education: University of Texas, Austin, B.S., 1987; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 2001.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Little, Brown and Co./Time Warner, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
CAREER: Writer. Worked in advertising in Minneapolis, MN, and for GSD&M, Austin, TX.
AWARDS, HONORS: University of Iowa fellowship; Dobie Paisano fellow, Texas Institute of Letters, 2002; James Michener award, Copernicus Society of America, 2002.
Brownsville, Back Bay Books (Boston, MA), 2003.
Contributor to literary journals, including Colorado Review, Threepenny Review, Iowa Review, and Northwest Review.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel.
SIDELIGHTS: Oscar Casares was born in Brownsville, Texas, just blocks from the Rio Grande. He left Brownsville to attend the University of Texas, Austin, and after graduating, he spent a decade in advertising, including for a firm in Minneapolis. Discouraged with the lack of opportunity in this field, he left the field and took a job at a canoe store. While he was away from home, Casares enjoyed telling stories about life in Brownsville, entertaining Minneapolis listeners by relating how his uncles would tell their own stories of the family's long history in south Texas. Oral history is important in that region where formal education has been inaccessible to many people.
Casares wrote his first short story in 1996, and returned to Texas, where his last public-relations job was with the Austin-based firm GSD&M, creators of the slogan "Don't Mess with Texas." He took writing courses at a community college in Austin, and in 1997, he met fiction writer Dagoberto Gilb, who had just accepted a teaching position at Southwest Texas State University. Gilb held informal workshops at his home once a week for five students, and included Casares. Casares's first story, "Yolanda," was published in Threepenny Review in 1998, and his work was soon accepted by other literary journals. He was offered a number of fellowships and accepted one from the University of Iowa. He spent the next two years writing the stories collected as Brownsville.
"Casares debuts with nine stories about economic hardship and emotional resourcefulness in a cross-cultural zone straddling the US-Mexico border," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic. The stories in this volume reflect life in the border town of Brownsville, but their themes are generic, featuring jealous husbands, inconsiderate neighbors, and family dysfunction. Library Journal critic Lawrence Olszewski remarked that "the details of the daily lives of the inhabitants of this microcosm are exquisite and delicious."
Roger Gathman wrote in the Austin Chronicle Books online that, "for the most part, Casares is writing about blue-collar guys—Hispanic guys—dealing with neighborhoods that are going to hell, wives who inexplicably want to get educated, and the general need to defend oneself against wily Anglo strategies." In one story, RG waits for years for his neighbor to return a borrowed hammer and nearly loses his temper when the neighbor uses the tool to hammer in a "Vote Reagan" yard sign. In "Chango" a thirty-one-year-old slacker named Bony, who lives at home with his mother and police-sergeant father, finds a monkey head in his yard and insists on keeping it.
Bookslut online reviewer Michael Schaub called Chango the "centerpiece" of the collection, commenting that Casares "handles the story so smoothly, suspension of disbelief isn't even necessary. Bony's relationship with the dead Chango is at once utterly believable and shock-ingly natural. A brilliant, heartbreaking story, 'Chango' alone should cement a permanent place in American literature for Casares," Schaub added, noting that Casares "writes with the unpretentious, conversational tone of a Texas Raymond Carver, but with an emotional intensity that Carver always shied away from."
In other stories, a young boy working at a fireworks stand gives away as many Roman candles as he sells; a man is driven nearly insane by a neighbor's barking dog; and an older woman named Mrs. Perez, who sees her youthful beauty represented by her red bowling ball.
A Publishers Weekly contributor felt that Casares's TexMex stories, "with their wisecracking, temperamental, obsessive middle-aged men and their dramas straight from neighborhood gossip are in the direct line of descent from Mark Twain and Ring Lardner." In the opinion of Tim Appelo, writing for the New York Times Book Review, Casares "should reach beyond vignettes, but as for character, place, and crisp lingo: so far, so good."
Texas Monthly critic Cecilia Balli wrote that Casares "writes about the lives of characters who are mostly working-class and ethnic in a way that makes them neither victims nor heroes nor martyrs, that acknowledges their social difference only as background material and recreates their world from the inside out—so that the margins become the mainstream. While many local youths commiserate about being stuck in a city that seems to march a step behind the rest of the country, in Brownsville, Casares captures the magic—and the normalcy—of having been raised in an American city where nine out of ten residents have Mexican roots."
Balli remarked that "there are spots where the description is deliciously vivid, but it is the dialogue that really carries his writing. Casares is, above all, a storyteller. His stories take wonderful, often triumphant twists, and the social commentary—on the increased presence of Border Patrol agents, on white flight, on the farmers' need for rain—is effectively subtle."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2002, review of Brownsville, p. 1785.
Library Journal, February 15, 2003, Lawrence Olszewski, review of Brownsville, p. 171.
New York Times Book Review, March 23, 2003, Tim Appelo, review of Brownsville, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, February 24, 2003, review of Brownsville, p. 52.
Texas Monthly, March, 2003, Cecilia Balli, "Bard of the Border," p. 100.
Austin Chronicle Online, http://www.austinchronicle.com/ (February 28, 2003), Roger Gathman, review of Brownsville.
Bookslut, http://www.bookslut.com/ (July 4, 2003), Michael Schaub, review of Brownsville and interview with Casares.
OnceWritten.com, http://www.oncewritten.com/ (June 16, 2003), Monica Poling, review of Brownsville.