NR: The Incarnations of Mariela Peña

At the time of writing, Steven J. Dines’ short story collection Look Where You Are Going Not Where You Have Been is my favourite book of the year and with just over a month of 2022 to go that doesn’t look like changing. This beautifully written novella, one that conflates personal and societal tragedies, using each to illuminate the other, is a perfect example of what Dines at his best is capable of producing.

It’s set in the near future. The islands of Malta and Gozo have been infected with a zombie virus and placed under strict quarantine, with armed troops stationed at beaches along the Mediterranean and under orders to shoot anyone who comes out of the sea. Foster and Poet patrol a beach in Libya, but they haven’t heard anything from command in ages and don’t know what is happening in the rest of the world. There’s tension between the two men with Foster, who is nominally in command, wanting to obey orders and Poet uncertain if they are still doing the right thing. When he has to kill a teenage girl zombie, memories of the past are stirred and Poet reminisces about a road trip to Mexico when he was nineteen and the affair he had with a stripper called Mariela Peña. Foster has past secrets of his own, but confessions that should bring them together instead escalate the tension between the two men to critical mass.

The description of Poet’s affair with Mariela is vivid and thoroughly convincing, a bittersweet love affair where the motives of the other are always carefully hidden. Poet chose to believe that things were a certain way, but it was a choice rather than evidence based. The sleaziness of the affair’s backdrop, with visions of the lives of strippers and junkies, only makes the emotions resonate all the more. It was a formative event, one that shaped everything about Poet’s life thereafter, the hand of fate, and he both wishes the memories gone and at the same time clings to them as if they were the only things of importance to happen to him, partner Angela and his child just footnotes to what really matters. Foster is an equally complicated character, someone who at first seems simply a yes man, somebody who unquestioningly obeys orders and likes to bully those in his power, with the need to make harsh choices as a pretext for his cruelty. But as the story continues, we find that there is a lot more depth to the man, that he has whole levels of character and tragedies of his own. The interplay between the two men is gripping, with every exchange of words full of subtle nuances, so that they goad and support each other in equal measure. Events on the beach mirror what happened on a beach to Poet all those years ago, and in the same way events in the world seem to hint at the hopelessness of the relationship between Poet and Foster.

With The Incarnations of Mariela Peña writer Steven Dines has produced a tiny masterpiece, one in which not a single word is wasted and where the characters, not least the absent but omnipresent Mariela, are as real as any people you see on the street, with a depth and solidity to them that compels belief.

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