“Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas” by Fernando A. Flores

The book cover for Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas.

For a title that beckons death, the pages of Fernando A. Flores’ debut short story collection charm with an intoxicating amount of life. But debut might be the wrong word. In 2014, Flores published an earlier version of his imaginative and sometimes unflattering depiction of the Rio Grande Valley music scene, which was called Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1. The “first volume” label signaled the collection was, in Flores’ mind, an incomplete product. There were things left unsaid, and, at the time, he didn’t feel like he could fit them all into a single catalog. But, perhaps, Flores realized it was more than the project’s scope that allowed South Texas, a place he knows and cares for deeply, to remain mysterious in his artistic renderings. Perhaps it had something to do with how he’d written the stories.

Shortly after Vol. 1’s release, Flores attracted two kinds of recognition. On the one hand, he’d written something of merit, which earned him a 2014 literary award from San Antonio’s Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation, and, the following year, a spot on Texas Monthly‘s Ten Writers to Watch list. On the other hand, the writer’s representations of the folks back home and the music being played in the Valley struck a different chord with readers, some of who were characters in his book. In a 2015 interview, Texas Monthly claimed that Vol. 1 earned Flores “a lot of enemies.”

“The members of the Valley punk band Inkbag were particularly affronted. They saw something very familiar—and deeply insulting—when they read the story of ‘Pinbag,’ an unflinching depiction of a trio of punk-rock losers. A few weeks after the book’s publication, Flores got word that if the members of the band ran into him, he might wind up with a few missing teeth” (Texas Monthly, 2015).

It’s a tale as old as the art of storytelling: get close to a writer and live forever. And yet many of these bands didn’t like how they were going to spend eternity in the first volume of Flores’ fantasy; who knew how many volumes would follow?

At the age of 33, Flores’ writing career was taking off. At the same time, a line was drawn for readers of the book along I-35, tracing the route between where he lived in Austin and where he was raised, near McAllen, Texas. Still, more lines were drawn for Flores: between literature and rock and roll, between real art and the bullshit art he originally sought to undo. In 2014, the wanted posters were put up and the message was clear: Don’t get too close to this guy, or even too attached to his work, or you might end up missing some teeth of your own.

But Flores wasn’t finished. Before Vol. 1 was published, he wasn’t even sure if people would ever read his stories. But all of a sudden, outsiders had read his work and liked it. If he had already been ostracized from the Rio Grande Valley music scene upon publication, why not double down on his vision? Four years later, in 2018, Flores removed the first volume label from his collection and published a more complete set of stories.

In this new edition, the writer’s revisions might not mend old wounds, but at least Flores can be sure he was true to himself; now, no one can call bullshit. In the time elapsed since 2014, Flores didn’t choose either side of the line that was drawn for him. If Vol. 1 gave him enemies, it also gave him direction to say the things that were previously left off the page, which now appear in the 2018 book. Where some writers might cave to threats of people they know, Flores continues to rebel. Besides, conforming out of peer pressure is about as anti-punk rock as it gets. In Death, a character realizes “it was her first time as a performer thinking about the audience…”, and perhaps this is Flores reflecting on the experience of the first time he tried to fictionalize the lives of real people, people he knew (90).

If Vol. 1 is Flores’ EP, then Death is his LP. At all times, the book is a Mexican-American hybrid, sometimes crossing borders in a globetrotting affair for its characters, their languages, and their realities. Back in his 2015 Texas Monthly interview, Flores remembered reading the same publication’s article on “The Secret History of Texas Music” and wishing for “an alternative list.” He says, “I’d love to see one about the great underground Texas bands that nobody knows about.” In Death, he’s made a list of his own.

From the epigraph, Death subverts expectation for bloody revolution, contrary to how a reader may judge the book’s cover. Flores starts with a quiet dedication to the youth,  which elicits tranquility, if only momentarily. This calm is destined to be interrupted, though not by an angry, pitchfork-wielding, proletarian mob, screaming for the heads of the bourgeoisie. Instead, readers are introduced to a four-piece band, and it’s the volume knobs on their amplifiers that kick-start a one-hundred-sixty-five-page musical rebellion, sprawling across ten spellbinding tales of transcendence through art. The inaugural story sets the needle on the vinyl record of a soundtrack Flores has carefully curated for one’s reading—and perhaps listening—pleasure.

The book opens with the formation of The House Band for the Hotel Cuerpo de la Paz. They don’t ask anyone to believe in them; they believe in themselves. These are the first punks Flores reveals in a cast of misfits who aren’t searching for anyone’s approval. And unlike a murderous mob, they have no particular entity to direct their complaints, no scapegoats to drag to execution. They channel their anger, their love, their hate, their passion, and the whatever-they-feel-in-the-moment through guitars and bass and drums and vocals, stirring up a ruckus inside the void of an old tool shed. It is in that dim, forgotten space where the band gets good enough to “let light in from the outside world,” and at this moment, the music doesn’t belong to them anymore (4). Nor does their story.

One might say that opening the book is equivalent to lifting the toolshed door, letting the light in. In doing so, the reader interrupts a jam session they weren’t meant to listen to. Only, Pandora can’t go back into the box.

The book charts previously remote corners of South Texas, Mexico, Canada, and other parts of the globe. Each story and the locale revealed therein becomes a nation unto itself, where there are no borders. The fantasy starts with the house band and follows them into the ocean, walking in their trademark suits, resisting against the waves that wish to reign them back in. They drift, “floating in the sea of a jam,” with a magic that was born in their toolshed, certain to wash back upon Texas shores with the tide (4). The next story, “Pinbag,” is the one that landed Flores in hot water with the band Inkbag back in 2014. Flores picks the magic off the sandy beaches of the gulf and carries it like a torch, creating a cycle that repeats from one chapter to the next.

In reference to writing the original version of “Pinbag,” Flores told Texas Monthly:

“I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote that story. I love Inkbag. And it just got out of hand. I never thought that anybody would read it—that story was sitting in my drawer for three or four years. I didn’t mean any harm to them on a social level. But at the same time, they weren’t the best people in the world either. They wrote a song called ‘Danny’s Drunk Again,’ about what a screwup their friend Danny was. And Danny was a real guy. They didn’t even change his name. When you’re twenty, twenty-one years old, that might seem cool. But what happens twenty years later, when you’re no longer that Danny?”

It’s true—the writer presents the members of the band in the second story as struggling lowlifes. Yet, something about disclosing their faults and shamelessness releases them from the burden of caring how society, or the reader, reacts to them. Pinbag, the moniker Flores gives the band, could give less than a fuck what you think about how they choose to live. A generous reader can even say Flores depicts the band with an air of admiration, as they live without regret. In the last line of the story, despite their tumultuous run, the band can look back their riotous wake and say, “Nobody rocked harder than Pinbag in McAllen, Texas. Nobody” (28). Whether Pinbag shares that sentiment with the rest of McAllen or solely among themselves should be of little concern to anyone.

Pinbag’s story ends, while the record of the book continues to spin on the living room turntable. The transition feels similar to how Vol. 1 simultaneously represents the ending of one chapter of Flores’ artistic journey and the beginning of a promising career. The conclusion of one story is the genesis of the next. The fantasy takes new shape and gives life to another set of artists. Every time Flores introduces a new character, it is plain to see the author’s imagination at work.

Even tertiary characters and bands have a story of their own, and the history of their places in the world are satisfying to wonder about and piece together—smaller cogs in larger, offstage rebellions. Flores creates immediate attachment to whomever he places in the spotlight. Everyone is cared for, in turn; we care for them as readers because we know them immediately and intimately.

In each story (which the blurb on the back cover aptly dubs “fairy-tales”), Flores casts the spell in the first passage. He sweeps you into a world which is at once real and familiar, and, at other times, surreal and absurd. One has no choice but to go along for the ride once Flores makes them participant in events history has tried to erase, once one bears witness to the legends of heroes or artistic visionaries who feel like they could have lived. It’s a feeling akin to discovering that first band in middle school without the aid of your parents or siblings or friends. These stories come to belong to the reader, so that they can then show someone else.

The once tranquil epigraph (“for all the kids”) grows louder with every subsequent fairy-tale. Among many of the characters, there is a sense of determination to break from life’s blueprint. They inherited the failings of their ancestors at birth, and they are haunted by societal expectations, which can only be tuned out in clamorous house shows with amplifier feedback, machine gun song tempos, stabbing riffs, and the glass-shattering of cymbal strikes on a hand-me-down drum kit.

As the turntable needle works its way from the edge of the vinyl toward the center of the disc, Flores works his way from on a tour from small-town Texas to the streets of Mexico City, from art venues in Montreal to bars in Berlin, from garage shows to political rallies to impromptu music festivals. Along the way, he demonstrates the healing power of music and the fearlessness of youth.

In the story “Bread8,” politicians want to tap into this power source they don’t have access to and use punk rock for “what it was intended to be: Change” (53). This sentiment is immediately upended by the musicians themselves when they announce on the next page they are performing at a political rally “FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON!!!!!!!!!” (54).

Is the energy of young people a force for progress, or is it a joke to the kids who don’t realize, or want, the power they have? Either way, the music will go on, it doesn’t depend on outside approval, but it does depend on the existence of an outsider community, since the music is a response to marginalization. Punk rock is a vote and a performance. It is substance and chaos.

Then, there are stories of blood and revolution, like “Black Alice/White Treemonisha” and “The Eight Incarnations of Pascal’s Fifth.” Such episodes of suffering, all tied to art, act as parables for the kids in his epigraph: You will undergo trauma, and you will find support in different ways if you keep living. There is hope and opportunity no matter the strife. A life is a life, all interesting, all with a story to tell if you take chances, even if in the end fame isn’t reached or efforts rewarded, you can live fulfilled or loved. Yes, there is generational suffering, but there is always hope in the power of youth, in the power of art to deliver people to a purposeful existence.

Within one or all of Flores’ characters, rebellion is reprimanded by authority—the law, the record label, the divine. Yet, in the end, the characters are always rewarded for having risked life and reputation, sometimes in spiritual or human connection, sometimes in overdue recognition, and sometimes they are simply granted survival and fulfillment.

There is death, too—thus fulfilling the promise of the title, after all.

Flores presents his fairy-tales for the kids who are growing, and the kids who have already grown. Characters like Liliana (“The Performances of Liliana Krauze”) and Beebee (“The Exit and Arrival of Beebee Kwaiczar”) appear as spirits harnessing the strength of younger bodies, like vessels hoping for a second—or third—chance at life. Investing in these generational (or dimensional) misfits will offer many readers nostalgic trips to the angst and romance of days past, or long for the pasts they never had the guts to leap into.

In Death, Flores is constantly asking himself: What is real art? Is it the band that jams with feel, the boy who builds confidence, the woman who bleeds on stage, or the avant-garde experimenter? Is it accessible or inaccessible? The answer, Flores seems to argue, depends on whether the creator feels it in his soul. As if without his art, there would be no thread to unwind the fabric of who he is. Anything less is bullshit, but one can only be a “bullshit artist” if the pursuit of art is void of the pursuit of himself.

Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas is a bridge to cross the generational divide. For the kids who’ve grown, trust the youth. For the kids growing, believe in your power to change. It is necessary for a generation to die for the next to sift through the bullshit of the last. Flores wants you to carry the magic and persist against the waves, and try, and try, and try again.

Fernando A. Flores was born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and raised in the U.S. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications since 2006. He’s also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Austin, Texas, and is married to the poet Taisia Kitaiskaia. (thewriterflores.com)

Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas was released in October 2018 by Host Publications, and in Europe by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. Flores’ debut novel, Tears of the Trufflepig, will be out Spring 2019 from MCD and FSG Originals.