Some of Lopez’s stories are pastoral and meditative, such as “Remembering Orchards,” an achingly beautiful memoir of a stepfather and the missed opportunities to communicate with him. Glimpses of the emotional landscape embedded in the physical orchard are so powerful they suck the breath away. This ravishing beauty is Lopez’s stock-in-trade, but elsewhere he exhibits his diverse talents and always keeps you guessing. The title story, in which two boorish tourists meet a bleak and gory end, is entirely free of compassion. As the only story here like this (thank goodness), it’s arresting, though ultimately lightweight for all its brutality. Strange that this is the title story, as it’s also the slightest — and especially since two of the stories in this book are masterpieces.
“The Letters of Heaven” is about two historical figures in Peru, a noblewoman and a priest, both sainted, but known here through the couple’s secret love letters and the man who inherits them. We never see the text of the letters, but possession of them shapes the life of their guardian as he learns to reconcile the spiritual with the erotic. This is one of those stories that can forever change you; it’s like reading your favorite of Salinger’s Nine Stories for the first time. Like Salinger, Lopez is concerned ultimately with spiritual survival, and approaches it with all of the optimism and energy of a science-fiction master. “The Letters of Heaven” works because Lopez makes the commingling of sex and spiritual ecstasy act like nuclear fusion — a discovery important enough to launch a new religion, or send a civilization into space. This is a story to be read over and over again, at various stages in one’s life, as a spiritual reality check — much the way the letters of the story figure for the narrator.
In the final story, “The Mappist,” a geographer tracks down an eccentric researcher whose meticulous though obscure work likewise threatens to be so revelatory that the old, comfortable views we hold of who, where and what we are can scarcely survive. “Nobody has the time for this kind of fieldwork anymore,” the narrator tells the old mappist when he finds him holed up in the wilds of the Dakotas. “That’s unfortunate,” the mappist replies, “because this information is what we need, you know. This shows history and how people fit the places they occupy. It’s about what gets erased and what comes to replace it. These maps reveal the foundations beneath the ephemera.”
This could be a description of the value of stories — for what are they, if not maps that show how we fit into places? Lopez’s maps do indeed reveal the foundations beneath the ephemera. A fearful symmetry, this thing Lopez, the consummate naturalist, has created.
DOSSIER | By STEPAN CHAPMAN Creative Arts Book Co. | 166 pages | $14 paperback