“How many sins could you commit in one day and still tell yourself you were a good man?” After skipping a traditional Christmas Eve dinner and screwing up an untraditional one he was supposed to be having with his girlfriend, the character of Wigmann contemplates this question as he downs a liver and onion dinner at a Baltimore harbor-side bar while thumbing through passages of The Diary of Anne Frank, deciding whether or not he will go to the pier, upon his mother’s request, to pick up a visiting Spaniard from the Old Country. All of the themes of Rafael Alvarez’s evocative collection of short stories, Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown, coalesce in this moment. The question of goodness and the search for beauty are underlying currents throughout these stories.
Wigmann is a featured player in the first story, “I Know Why I Was Born,” which begins on the day that our star, Basilio, (age eight) wakes up and realizes he was “[b]orn to paint the pictures in his head, to sketch the kitchen in the basement, to capture the clouds as the wind drove them past the bottle cap factory down by the railroad tracks, to capture the air that swirled across the tarred rooftops.” The stories are roughly chronological and follow Basilio from his artistic awakening to his free-fall from a scaffold while painting a mural, “a plunging pint of Hellenic blue about to mix with the thin blood of an 86-year-old artist who’d never received his due.”
While Baltimore is his canvas, Basilio’s chorography is the soul. The book was published on the twentieth anniversary of Alvarez’s first short story collection, The Fountain of Highlandtown, and the short story from which the collection bears its name appears in both books. Reading the story a second time in a different context is a unique experience because now we know Basilio as a middle-aged man who, in both his paintings and his life, is simply trying to get things right. Divorced and out of a “real job,” he moves from the suburbs to Macon Street to live with his Spanish grandfather. “Why are you here?” the old man asks almost daily. It’s a question that never escapes the artist.
Art, for Basilio, is a way to capture the past and still the motion of constant change in which rituals and traditions are turned upside down. For instance, not long after his divorce, Basilio fake-marries a woman in an Elvis bar where they fish their rings from a tank of abandoned wedding bands. The truest moment of the story is when the woman, Roxanne, literally bears her breasts and asks him to paint her.
Basilio’s great obsession is his distant cousin, Nieves, “…both kin and stranger, all of nineteen years old,” who arrives unannounced from Spain to live with him and his grandfather in an attempt to escape a drug addiction. For Basilio, Nieves brings “[a] sense of being in Spain though he’d never been, a transcendence of time and place he tried to understand but never felt from the stories he’d heard from Grandpop all his life, the stories he’d begun to paint after moving in.” Basilio abandons all common sense; instead he tries to discover Nieves by painting and sketching her. In the end, not unlike the genetic memory of a past he will never know, she becomes lost to him—both literally and figuratively, after she’s arrested for shooting heroin. She leaves the house and folds into the city. Neither Basilio nor this American Jerusalem can save her.
Alvarez is a kind of urban Proust, favoring pickled pig’s feet over madeleines, and baseball stadiums in lieu of French drawing rooms, all underscored by a rock and roll soundtrack. Things fall apart. A sober Basilio arrives too late in the eighth inning of an Orioles game in an attempt to reconcile with his wife. Expressways plow through immigrant neighborhoods. In order to get his daughter access to private Catholic education, Basilio makes a deal with a beer drinking nun to restore paintings in a church and school that will vanish the following year. Still, from the rubble comes some kind of rebirth, and the artists—both Basilio and Alvarez—bear witness. These stories strike a profound balance between motion and stillness, the sacred and the profane—the tension of which achieves the beauty they seek.