Daniel Alarcón “Second Lives”
The New Yorker Fiction: 20 Under 40
August 16/23, 2010 issue

Daniel Alarcón’s Q&A is one which I enjoyed particularly: for me, it has the perfect blend between playfulness and seriousness.

For instance, he doesn’t mind saying that the first pieces of fiction to have an impact on him as a young reader were Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth or something by Beverly Cleary (rather than insist he was reading Tolstoy as a child), and yet he is almost reverential in acknowledging the debt he owes to the writers who now inspire him to write.

“Second Lives” is apparently drawn from a wider body of Alarcón’s work which considers the lives of Francisco and Nelson and their parents. Although the title likely has metaphorical meaning in the context of a longer work, in this short story, the most immediate significance is the series of monumental changes in the characters’ lives that undoubtedly leave each of them feeling as though a stark line has been drawn between a previous existence and a wholly different state of being, a second life.

Francisco, the oldest son, was actually born in America, when his parents were living in Baltimore and working on a visa, which soon expired; friends the parents had made while living there as a young married couple, the Villanuevas, invite Francisco as a teenager, to live with them in the U.S., extend their home in Birmingham, Alabama (for a fee, whilst the rest of the family remains behind).

Thereupon, Francisco’s second life begins. And, so do the second lives of his brother, Nelson, and their parents. Francisco moves into a world in which even the Spanish teachers don’t speak Spanish. He attends public school even though the Villanuevas’ children have attended private schools, and his experiences are a world away from what he has known. Very quickly, the letters he sends to his family seem, literally, incredible.

In 1987, Francisco was learning how to water-ski in the U.S., but for the rest of the family it was the year of the state-employee strike (their father worked at the National Library and their mother at the Ministry of Health). Nelson is at home, coping with this situation alongside his parents, watching them struggle to keep Francisco in the U.S. despite their losses. Such a dichotomy.

“Together these horrors would wipe out our already diminished savings. War pressed down on the country in all its fury. Adults spoke of politics as if referring to a long and debilitating illness that no medicine could cure.”

These characters, even in a short story, take shape and draw in the reader; I’d definitely like to read more about them.

Have you read Daniel Alarcón before? Do you want to?