Stories in ‘Barefoot Dogs’ explore family fleeing Mexico’s drug war

Author’s first offering looks at serious issues in entertaining fashion.

By Charles Ealy

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s “Barefoot Dogs,” a debut collection of short stories, seems both timely and timeless, full of ambiguity, dislocation and startlingly vivid images that are perfectly suited to the book’s overall tone.

The Austin writer, who earned his MFA from the New Writers Project at the University of Texas, takes a look at recent immigrants who have fled his native land of Mexico because of drug violence. And while he deals with some of the lower-class immigrants who are seeking a better economic life, he focuses primarily on wealthy Mexicans who have fled, many of whom he considers to be “basically war refugees.”

“I think that what has struck me about the recent wave of immigration is that in the past there was a long history of Mexican immigration to the U.S. mostly for financial reasons,” he says. “But some of the new immigrants are different because they are fleeing the country seeking refuge from violence.”

In the case of “Barefoot Dogs,” the main characters are all members of the Arteaga family, whose wealthy patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, has been kidnapped. All but one of his five sons and daughters flee Mexico City with their families after the kidnapping

— one to Northern California, another to Austin, another to suburban Connecticut and another to Madrid. Only the oldest son, the single Victoria-no, stays behind, watching the boxes of his relatives’ possessions pile up at his home while bearing the burden of trying to preserve the family ties to Mexico City.

Through the linked stories, Ruiz-Camacho is trying to convey how it feels to flee a country that your social class used to rule. And yes, he’s well aware that some of them are the victims of their own politics. But he’s exploring the idea of “losing a sense of self-importance and realizing that even though you may still have money and means, your life changes completely and dramatically.”

In writing the stories, he says that he also was “haunted by the hundreds and thousands of people who have disappeared, from all backgrounds, because of the drug wars.”

“Losing someone because they have disappeared has to be one of the worst ways of missing someone,” he says. “You don’t know what happened to them. How do you reach closure when you don’t know what happened to the person who’s lost? These characters came to me from that idea. They had to flee the country they felt belonged to them.”

Fun amid the gloom

Although there’s a deadly serious undercurrent throughout “Barefoot Dogs,” the stories themselves can be quite funny.

Take, for instance, the story that’s weirdly titled “Origami Prunes.”

It focuses on a young Mexican man, Plutarco Mills, who works at the consulate in Austin and comes across an intriguing older woman, Laura, at a washateria. Camacho-Ruiz conjures strangely funny images in his description of Laura, who’s clearly a wealthy woman from Mexico City, unaccustomed to being seen in a laundromat. “Laura’s plump body was clad in a navy linen dress decorated with water lilies that played nicely with the vintage mustard Gucci bag that lay on top of the washer, like an aardvark in a cattle ranch.”

Camacho-Ruiz knows that the “aardvark” reference is weird, “but I think it perfectly represents the sense of disorientation, how out of the world this image is.” (As it turns out, Laura is one of the daughters of the wealthy man who was kidnapped in Mexico City. And you’ll realize in another story that Laura is doing her own laundry because she has fired her maid, who gets a job at a McDonald’s in Austin and has a weird experience with a bear. But that’s another tale.)

Laura is taken with Plutarco, even if she’s put off by all the others in the laundromat, and tells Plutarco during a flirtatious moment: “The main difference between us, Mr. Mills, and them, all of them, is that the words that come out of your mouth, even the simplest ones, ripen into origami prunes in my heart.”

And as the weirdness escalates, Plutarco decides to climb into a clothes dryer and tumble over and over while Laura watches. “The first couple of spins were rough as my body adjusted to the metallic hardness of this new habitat. The air was itchy and had an artificial, eerie taste to it. ... But then the space flattened out and the air cleared, the sense of flying in circles vanished, and I broke free. ... I recognized the rooftop of the house I grew up in and the tennis courts of the country club where I learned to ride on horseback... .”

It doesn’t take long for Laura and Plutarco to end up in bed back at Plutarco’s apartment, oblivious to the outside world for an entire weekend, even though fires are raging through the hills west of Austin and headed downtown. The two also hop into a dryer again at the apartment building, in between love-making.

Camacho-Ruiz says he has never hopped into a dryer himself. “But when you’re going through strange experiences (in real life), I think you alter your perception of reality, in order to survive. I think it’s a survival mechanism. And I think it’s different in every person, and it expresses itself in each culture,” he says.

He says that Laura reminds him of Patricia Arquette’s character in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” especially the scene where “she’s crying when her son is headed off to college, and she says, ‘I thought there was something more.’ I think that’s what Laura experiences, but on top of everything else, she’s stranded, away from home, wondering what happened to my life.”

His own story

Ruiz-Camacho, 42, was born in Toluca, Mexico, about 40 miles west of Mexico City. He grew up as the only son of a wealthy entrepreneur who was “the president of a transportation company and owned a wide array of small businesses

— ranches, gas stations, a little restaurant here and there. He also had political aspirations and was a state representative from our area, with the PRI,” which held sway in Mexico for more than 70 years.

While his father was wealthy and politically powerful, “the other side of my family was rather working class, lower middle class. So one side was totally different from the other side of my family,” he says. “One of the reasons I became a journalist and a writer was to try to articulate those weird contrasts that I grew up with.” in Mexico City, he began his journalism career as a copy editor at the newspaper Reforma. His father was dismayed, he says, and offered to buy him a newspaper or magazine, but Ruiz-Camacho turned him down. “Stupidly enough for me, I was not interested,” he says. “I wanted to write, to be a reporter. ... Now that I think about it ... I could have said yeah, give me the money, and I wouldn’t have to worry.”

But he was soon writing features about social issues, especially poverty and natural disasters “that were magnified by irresponsible government.”

He moved to Austin in 2004 to be managing editor of a Spanish-language newspaper called Rumbo, which was part of a chain of Texas newspapers launched by the Wall Street Journal. Rumbo closed in 2006, but Ruiz-Camacho kept working for the other Journal newspapers in Texas as a manager while still living in Austin.

But then he got a chance to do what he always wanted — study creative writing while attending a journalism fellowship at Stanford University from 2008 to 2009. “There were no creative writing classes in Spanish, so I had to take the classes in English.” At first, he was leery of writing in English, simply because it’s not his native tongue. “I realized I would never write in English like a native speaker, and that no matter how hard I tried, it was never going to happen. But the feedback that I received about my particular style was very positive, so I thought I’d embrace it.”

After Stanford, he returned to Austin to work on his master’s degree at the University of Texas, where he worked with such people as Elizabeth McCracken and her husband, Edward Carey, both of whom he praises for their help with “Barefoot Dogs.” (He has high praise for his New York editor, Liese Mayer, as well.)

“So I guess it’s not totally horrible what I’m doing ... since I finished an MFA, got an agent, got a Dobie Paisano (writing) fellowship and had a book published,” he says. “When I feel terribly bad about what I’m trying to do, which is quite frequently, I say ‘OK.’ Other people seem to think I’m OK, so I just keep going. I think that happens to every writer, regardless of the language. Maybe I’m just harder on myself because of this thing about the language.”

More than OK

McCracken, who was Ruiz-Camacho’s thesis adviser at the University of Texas as well a noted short story writer herself, says that “Barefoot Dogs” is more than OK.

She thinks the “Origami Prunes” story is “absolutely brilliant” and says she loves the entire book. But in her typically funny way, she has one quibble. She doesn’t like the story’s title. “For some reason the combination of origami (dry paper with many folds) and prunes (damp fruits with many folds) — it didn’t work for me,” she says via e-mail. “It almost conjures up an image, but somehow it can’t. It is without a doubt the only thing I don’t like about the story, or indeed the entire book.”

Ruiz-Camacho has heard McCracken’s argument before but says that he never plans a title of a story beforehand. “When I’m reading the story, I ask myself whether there’s a line or sentence or image that stands out to me? Hopefully, (the title) is interesting and striking and weird. ... It’s funny because that’s the only story that changed titles about three times.”

Ruiz-Camacho says he tried to follow McCracken’s advice that “a good ending for a short story needs to propel the story into the future, that the story keeps going further in your mind after you finish it. ... At least I tried for that effect.”

Of his overall style, he says: “I hope it’s strange enough to be interesting for the reader but doesn’t get in the way of the story. That’s my main concern all the time.”

The author says he’s working on a translation of “Barefoot Dogs” into Spanish, “and it’s more challenging than I thought. I felt I was writing in Spanish with English words and that translating the book would be simple. But when I started, I realized how much the nature of the stories is driven by the English language. So now the challenge is to translate that into Spanish in a way that doesn’t sound fake. ... At the same time, I have to to convey the strangeness in Spanish, because I think that is part of the book. It has to be a language that feels authentic but has creativity and weirdness to it. It’s something I did on purpose, the strange images, the weird language, so I have to integrate that into Spanish, too, and that’s another challenge. But I’m having a great time.”

Contact Charles Ealy at 512-445-3931.