A review of

The Complete History
of New Mexico

by Kevin McIlvoy

Central question: Will you ever receive another letter like this one?
Format: 256 pp., paperback; Size: 6.5" x 9"; Price: $15.00; Publisher: Graywolf Press; Editors: Fiona McCrae with Katie Dublinski; Book designer: Wendy Holdman; Typefaces: Méridien; American Typewriter; Years author spent editing Puerto del Sol, literary journal of New Mexico State University: Twenty-three; Story by author also regarding teacher and nonconforming writing student: “A Testicular Self-Examination”; Representative sentences: “Did President Polk believe that stuff about the Seven Cities of Cibola? Did he just want a dead beaver hat like everybody else?”

“A man who fell in love with the same woman seven times, who loved him less each time he fell, sent seven other falling, failing men The Letter. And in only seven years… she wrote to him to say that someday she would write to him again.” Seven years is a long time, if you are not that man. “Are you him?” The Complete History of New Mexico opens with this come-on, a powers-of-seven call to arms: McIlvoy posits a universe of “believers, brothers and lovers,” and writes it into being.

The title novella collects, in three parts, the grade school papers of Charlemagne “Chum” J. Belter. Written in fifth grade, fifth-grade summer school (for failed English), and sixth grade—a short time only if you are not that boy—the papers tell an alternative New Mexico history, intercut with a personal history of the death of Chum’s best friend, Daniel, and the disappearance of Daniel’s sister afterward. Chum never tells us exactly what happened—he doesn’t know, maybe, in that kid-like way one roots for a runaway to stay unfound (it means she’s “successful”). Daniel’s father, a writer, has something to do with it, “something more terrible than a beating.”

Chum’s NM history, though poor (he receives grades of 3, 40, and 84 points), has footnotes and a bibliography. A search for some of these sources found them to be bogus, and you have to admire McIlvoy’s hand: He knows a fraudulent history’s materially superior to a true, “necessary” one. Chum’s second go at the research paper concerns “mule prostitutes” secretly teaching slave children atop rose-terraced mounds in the middle of the night. Chum asks the obvious question: Why teach on mounds if you’re trying not to be found? Semi Senor, a bus driver who repeats himself like “a broom does in a corner,” explains: “If I put seven beautiful cups on the grounds—at night—late at night—and I—I could—I could make you doubt make you believe one magic stones is hiding inside one beautiful cups… How many times if I if I—how many times—when half the times you refuse to guess—would you guess right the right beautiful cup?”

But: one night the Spaniards guess right (“Most of their buddies had gone back to The Old World that year so the ones left had nothing to do but look for prostitutes”). The prostitutes are slaughtered. The girl is never found. (Chum’s stand-in explanation involves his English teacher and murder and Mexico.) And yet the novella is the brightest thing in the book, funny in a way the shorter stories, unmoderated by myth, can’t be: A boy starving himself to get out of the draft encounters a nurse for whom his fear is a license; a baby doll (now a dog’s chew toy) dreams of “real scabs, and nails to pick the scabs.” Leavings of McIlvoy’s underclass, the doll understands that wishful, into-the-sunset criminality.

It’s not exactly classist, or anti-classist. After all, “to be a Lover, Heaven, in the long run, makes you poorer by the power of seven and offers you one nothing less than nothing and asks of you seven times more than you have ever done.” The canon has its base-10, its cynical impulse (cf. Troilus and Cressida—“They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform, vowing more than the perfection of ten and discharging less than the tenth part of one”—in which what is notable is not lovers’ lack but their withholding). McIlvoy’s characters don’t grant this. Like all good foundational narratives, his NM is both sentimental and subversive.

—Phyllis Fong

Phyllis Fong lives in New York. She works for the Village Voice.

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