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A view from the bridge

NO MAN'S LAND

By Eduardo Antonio Parra

Translated by Christopher Winks

City Lights, $13.95, 218 pp

Reviewed by PHILIP HERTER

Mexican author Eduardo Antonio Parra's tough-guy tales explore the lives of Mexico's marginalized border dwellers, where the cliche"so far from God, so close to the United States" glares like a curse from every bright light and shiny car slipping across the international boundary.

Parra's frontier is an unremitting wasteland of dusty streets, hopeless youth and corrupt officials caught between two cultures. Tracing the lives and deaths of these nowhere people, the author utilizes some conventions of noir fiction _ attention to grim detail and deadpan prose (ably translated by Christopher Winks). When the stories reach beyond their hard-boiled surface to social and economic realities facing today's Mexican border dwellers, the result is a chilling, if uneven, collection of stories about the hard luck men and women living within sight of the world's wealthiest nation.

In a story called "The Darkest Night" glue sniffers, young lovers and hysterical rich people all find their own apocalypse against the backdrop of a blacked-out city. While their social and economic circumstances could not be more different, their family relations share the same dysfunctioning power grid. Parra's winos and bums, hustlers and whores, though dressed by the author as "metaphors of desire," hold on to their humanity against all odds.

Occasionally Parra's vision of the Mexican underbelly of evil cops, streetwalkers and transsexuals seems to owe as much to comic books as to the author's social awareness. But the strongest stories deal with characters caught dreaming of a better life. In "The Showcase of Dreams" a young man with no prospects hangs out on the bridge to El Paso wondering about his father, who left the family for a life on the American side and the riches the young man is sure will be found there.

No Man's Land exploits the despair of a spiritual no-hope zone, where people live on the margins while caught smack in the middle. Parra's Mexican-American border is a place where the wheel of gringo culture grinds against local Mexican traditions of hearth and home. No Man's Land is not a pretty place, but when its author forgoes the cartoonish violence for the humanity of his characters, these stories offer a fascinating peek through the grimy windows of America's next-door neighbors.

Philip Herter writes about books in translation from New York.

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