Post Road Magazine #29

Everyone's Invited: Homicide Survivors Picnic by Lorraine M. López

J.C. Crucet

In 2011, I moved from Los Angeles to what people call "The South," though around these parts, they call it North Florida, or as some ads around town say, The Real Florida—meaning, not South Florida, not Miami, not the Florida I'm actually from. I was starting a job at a southern university, about to become the only Latina in my department, the Cuban flag I'd proudly displayed on the desk of my old workplace now hiding in a moving box. Enter Lorraine López and her magnificent story collection Homicide Survivors Picnic.

I found Lorraine López's work the way most of us find things these days: via a Google search. I needed a book to help me understand what I was headed toward, so I typed in "Latina" and "South" and "Stories" and "Homicide" (no, for real: I was not-so-vaguely-afraid I would end up dead here). Five hits down and there she was: a Latina setting stories in the American South, living right up the road in Nashville, of all places! What I found in reading Homicide Survivors Picnic—her second collection and fourth work of fiction—were some of the most honest, disturbing (this is a big plus), and darkly humorous stories I'd read in a long time, stories that defy the easy, reductive labels I'd had to use to track them down in the first place.

Many of the characters in Homicide Survivors Picnic are working through the stifling nature of familial love. One story, "Sugar Boots" (the name of an ill-fated cat), begins with the line, "As he bathes three-year-old Beau, Leo Garza thinks about murder." Care and rage sit next to each other in uncomfortable yet honest ways: in "Batterers," a woman who has survived an abusive relationship visits a "batterers group," and by "telling what is true" about being hit and knowing it's coming, she inadvertently challenges every second of work the story's main character has put into the lives of the men he's trying to help. The main character in one of the collection's most devastating and hilarious stories, "Women Speak," seems persistently stuck behind a truck of live chickens on her way to work and a truck of frozen and/or dead chickens on her way home. That story is an unflinching, almost-frightening call to action, as López rattles you from the page (at the end of a presentation, one character says, "I am the granddaughter of a dead one-eyed woman, who is always watching on me… And she's watching on you, too."). By that story's conclusion, she's convinced you—via her sharp use of dialogue and her flawless scenes—to demand more from yourself, from your life.

The last story in the book returns to the same characters we meet in the book's first piece, which gives Homicide Survivors Picnic a feeling of being greater than the sum of its parts. This collection—a finalist for the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award—is worth picking apart and studying if you're trying to figure out what makes a collection more than a bunch of your best stories stapled together. López somehow displays tremendous range in the voices and perspectives she inhabits without the collection ever feeling at all scattered or disjointed. Part of what unites them so successfully is the fact that all of López's characters are survivors, each of them still reeling (to varying degrees) from the violence that has shaped and defined their lives.

What emerges from the aftermath of reading Homicide Survivors Picnic is the strong sense of a community, a chorus of often-ignored but urgent voices. Though I was expecting a manual for survival in my new hometown, instead what I got was a playbook for being a better human being, a way toward accepting life's inability to provide us with easy answers. The lives on display are as real as those of my new neighbors: this book trains you how to love, even when that love can (and will) kill you.

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