There’s a map on the first page of Toni Margarita Plummer’s debut short story collection, The Bolero of Andi Rowe. An artful pen and ink depiction of the spiderweb of interstates that threads through greater Los Angeles, it’s nexus is the city of South El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley.
“Even in L.A., some people don’t know where South El Monte is,” Plummer, 31, says of the Mexican-American working class suburb where she grew up and has set the majority of her stories. “I thought it was important to place the reader.”
Suspended between Hollywood and suburban Pomona, South El Monte, in Plummer’s depiction, is a sea of “one-story boxes with stucco slapped on,” watched over by ceramic Virgin Marys — a place of heavy heat, threadbare pool halls, tequila sunrises. It’s vivid, gritty, quintessentially American terrain, in the sense that it seems at once innately familiar and unexplored, and makes for an apt backdrop for stories set at the crossroads of culture and identity.
Orbiting loosely around the titular character, a young woman of Irish-American and Mexican-American decent, these are meditations on heritage, love, and coming of age — what it takes to stay rooted in an ever-expanding present. Subtle and sensual, the stories knit narratives across time: We meet both Andi and her mother as adolescents, inhabiting the same landscape through the lens of different decades. Characters who make cameos in one piece might show up fully fleshed, narrating the next.
The puzzlelike structure will be familiar — and appealing — to fans of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, but Plummer says she wasn’t aiming to write a novel. “I was committed to it being short stories,” she told me over margaritas at Manhattan’s colorful Trailer Park bar earlier this week. Plummer, who lives in Boerum Hill, is an editor at St. Martin’s Press, where her authors include crime novelist Sophie Littlefield and the International Latino Book Award-winner Michael Jaime-Becerra, an El Monte native himself. “There are different definitions, of course, but to me a novel follows a continuous storyline and I didn’t want to do that here.”
What she has done, admittedly, is used the collection as a meditation on her own heritage and family history. The narratives of Andi Rowe provide a rough sketch of Plummer’s own background: Her bookkeeper mother was born in Mexico, orphaned as a child, and raised in California by a strict grandmother. Her father was a loan officer from whom she inherited a love of books and Bob Dylan. His Irish-born mother and Plummer’s mother — both devout Catholics, with roots on opposite sides of the planet — shared a tight bond, even after Plummer’s parents divorced. “Mexico and Ireland are very similar in a way,” Plummer says. “Their relationship made me fascinated with the idea of adoptive families and adoptive cultures.”
In the story “Happy Hour,” Andi Rowe’s father takes her sister out for Coronas after his mother’s funeral, while Andi is consoling her own devastated mother. “ ‘Mexicans are much freer about their feelings. Not like white people. But you and Andi, you’ve got the best of both worlds,’ ” he says. “I smile. I don’t say it’s always been just the one world split.”
The collection, begun when Plummer was an MFA student at the University of Southern California, won the Miguel Marmol prize, for a first work of fiction by a Latino author, from the renowned independent publisher Curbstone Press in 2008. But plans for its publication were waylaid after the death of Curbstone’s director, Sandy Taylor. After a lengthy limbo Plummer used to revise, rework, and reorder the stories to her satisfaction, Curbstone was acquired by Northwestern University Press in 2009. Andi Rowe marks the debut of the new imprint, which will also continue to publish Curbstone’s extensive multiculturally oriented backlist.
Last weekend, Plummer saw it for the first time on a bookstore shelf while attending her ten-year reunion at Notre Dame. (Her classmate Greta L. Bilek, a San Francisco-based architect, is the artist of the map that appears in the book.) “Mostly it was my friends buying it,” Plummer laughs. There was also a guy she didn’t know, with a nametag that read “Man Seeking Beer.” Later that night, around 3 a.m., he pulled Plummer from her dorm room to give an impromptu reading in the hospitality room. “We assembled an interesting group of people, in various states of drunkenness,” she says. “These girls gave us their leftover Papa John’s pizza. It was rather surreal.”
Toni Margarita Plummer will read from her collection at the California-themed bar Pacific Standard, 82 4th Avenue, Brooklyn on Thursday, June 9 at 7 p.m. and will appear on the panel Periodically Speaking at the New York Public Library on June 14 at 6 p.m.