The Return

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Like Marquez and Amado before him, the South American writer Roberto Bolano has managed to crack the U.S. bestseller fiction lists with such works as Last Evenings on Earth and Nazi Literature in the Americas. Now New Directions has released a book of stories by the late Chilean writer, who died at the age of fifty in 2003.

THE RETURN offers thirteen stories by Bolano, who is roughly to South American literature what Charles Bukowski was to North American--a tough, ballsy underground writer who has known the inside of jails, bars, flop houses, brothels and porn films. In fact, my favorite story in THE RETURN is about a 37-year-old porn star, Joanna Silvestri (the title of the story), who in first-person narration, talks about her life and work in unapologetic, moving fashion--especially when, on a work trip to L.A., she seeks out Jack Holmes, "who'd been California's number one porn star just a few years before," but had been struck down by the AIDS virus and was now clinging to life in a shabby old bungalow in Monrovia.

Joanna's love for her once-virile and deeply-caring friend is both remarkable and admirable. She shares Jack's last days with him, swapping memories and jokes, helping him die with dignity and respect.

I liked most of the other stories in the book, except for the long-winded and pointless Prefiguration of Lalo Cura. The title story, The Return, is quintessential Bolano; its narrator is a dead man who remains on earth long enough to watch his body being sold by two morgue attendants to a necrophiliac fashion designer. The ghost spends the night at the designer's luxurious home, chatting quite calmly and affably with him.