A collection of stories about immigration, broken dreams, Los Angeles gang members, Latin American families, and other tales of high stakes journeys, from the author of War by Candlelight and At Night We Walk in Circles.
Alarcón is an empathic observer of the isolated human, whether isolated by emigration or ambition, blindness or loneliness, poverty or war. His stories have a reporter's mix of kindness and detachment, and perhaps as a result, his endings land like a punch in the gut ... Alarcón is nearly always oblique. Even the title story has no one political point. There's a dead dictator, but the story isn't about his death, or about the dictatorship. It's about a man who wants, on a purely personal level, to be free. That's what the whole collection is about: people who want to be free. Alarcón writes about them with a grayscale beauty that few writers can achieve, or try to. His purpose isn't to approve or condemn, or to liberate. He's writing to show us other people's lives, and in every case, it's a pleasure to be shown.
These stories — many set in an unnamed Latin American country resembling Alarcón’s native Peru, with a few unfolding in the United States where he’s lived most of his life — are filled with young men who’ve lost their innocence and their way. Many of them would be right at home in the 1930s world of John Steinbeck. Much like Nelson — the antihero whose decline and fall are chronicled in Alarcón’s spellbinding At Night We Walk in Circles — these lost souls often grow callous and cruel, in a country that one story’s narrator describes as 'stinking, violent, diseased.' They witness random and pointless fights, involving men who can’t find work and have nothing to do, in cities and towns that are falling apart and that time itself seems to have forgotten. Many of these locales have the sort of surrealistic, menacing air of a hellish provincial town in a Robert Bolaño novel.
Daniel Alarcón’s new collection, The King Is Always Above the People, begins with four top-notch stories...The sophisticated stylistic diversity of this entertaining and inspiring opening quartet is a delight. Yet as the ensuing stories unfurl, some wonderful, some so slight as to feel like filler, the collection begins to resolve into a set of repetitive themes ... If Alarcón explicitly thematizes migration, urbanization, the lives of those left behind and discarded, and the emotional byproducts of geographic and social mobility, a related but distinct theme eventually comes to dominate the book: men coping with the inadequacies of their lives ... Fiction about men is, of course, hardly notable, but Alarcón’s dispirited, frustrated, and endlessly seeking — even when they are successful — men stand out in particular against the flatness of his women. These muted barmaids, wives, mothers, and girlfriends function largely to thwart or succor their men, a banal dichotomy and frustrating misstep for a book with so many strengths ... These stories might be better read on their own than together; while Alarcon is a truly impressive writer, the sum here is less than the parts.