Verdict: HOUSE OF ORDER offers rare insight into the shambles of life lived on the fringe. A worthy read.
Author John Paul Jaramillo’s first collection of stories follows three generations of the Ortiz family in their hard and bitter (though beautiful) struggle to survive and prosper on the fringes of American society. The story’s arc is largely narrated by Manito Ortiz, a memory collector who is searching for meaning within his own life by digging at his family’s roots. Unfortunately for Manito, his only sources of information are small grains hidden within family photographs and a few yellowing newspaper articles. What memories remain are often buried and overshadowed by legend, and reside in the mind of Manito’s unreliable, alcoholic uncle, Neto. These legends are recounted (often more flatteringly) by Neto, whose alcoholism drives him from the comfort of all his romantic relationships and lands him in the VA hospital with a terminal prognosis. The older Ortiz generations possess a strong work ethic: laboring from dawn until dark to bring home the meager pay of migrant workers, never refusing a job as too difficult or too dangerous. Shunned by society, the family agitates on society’s outskirts in both New Mexico and Colorado, each generation stumbling through alcoholism, drug use, violence and prison. Eventually, it becomes clear that the Ortiz family’s legacy can only be salvaged through Manito’s own salvation. By the end of THE HOUSE OF ORDER, Manito seems to be making some decisions regarding his own future: to view his past with compassion, to strive to become educated, to nurture a desire to become a better father. Though Jaramillo does not offer closure on any of those counts, one gets the sense that Manito will figure it all out eventually.
Jaramillo’s stories are stark and poignant, full of realistic problems caused by poverty, prison, and broken families. His characters are gritty and proud; however, it is daunting at times to follow the collection’s narration. Several of the stories are written in third person while others are in the first person; therefore, it can be difficult to determine which of the narrators is speaking and when. Jaramillo’s use of intermittent Spanish can be both an asset and an obstacle.
In some stories, the dialogue can be disorienting, since— especially in the beginning vignettes— many of the conversations seem to present the reader with no closure (conversations appear to stop without reaching their pinnacle) and can contain references that seem obscure to the reader unfamiliar with the culture about which the author is writing. However, Jaramillo hits his stride best in later stories such as “Grown-Ass Men”, “Juanita’s Boy”, and the title story “The House of Order,” where the dialogue, though still choppy at points, becomes more clear and relevant, allowing his readers the chance to better understand his characters’ points of view and encouraging his audience to engage in the emotional apogee that rests at the pinnacle of all spot-on dialogue.
While the HOUSE OF ORDER offers rare insight into the shambles of life lived on the fringe, it seems at times that the author tries too hard to make his stories seem literary. However, the book is filled with beautiful moments, like shards of broken stained-glass window lying in the dirt. This book will open your eyes to a new way of life and will leave you with haunting images not soon forgotten. A worthy read.
Reviewed by H.K. Rainey for IndieReader.