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Oscar Casares inspired by family lore

August 9, 2009

By Steve Bennett at

Oscar Casares grew up in a family of elders.

When he was born in May 1964, his dad was 50, his mother 42. They had just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. One brother had two kids, the other was in college.

“My cousins were a generation older than I was,” says the writer. “My aunts and uncles, two generations.”

They told stories, including the one about the great-great-great-grandfather who was abducted as a child from a carnival in Nuevo Leon in the 1850s by an Indian raiding party. Scalps were taken.

“And when they crossed back over the river, they deposited this one child,” Casares says.

It is the seed story of the Casares family’s roots in Texas, in America — well, the unique America that is the deep South Texas border. It also is the basis of Casares’ first novel, “Amigoland,” which will be published on Monday.

“It was such a dramatic story to hear as a child,” Casares recalls. “My uncle always swore it was true, my father always said he was nuts. I never knew who to believe. But I never heard anything to counter it. When I sat down to write, I knew that was the story I was going to tell.”

Casares, now 45, is tall and lanky, with thick black hair swept back from an expansive forehead that juts out over dark, piercing eyes. He is sitting in a comfortable armchair in his northwest Austin living room, kids’ toys scattered about, long grasshopper legs crossed, talking about “Amigoland.”

His wife Becky, an attorney with the state attorney general’s office, arrives from the pediatrician’s office with the couple’s 5-week-old daughter Elena Isabel, who is unhappy about getting a couple of vaccinations in her tiny thigh. Their 2-year-old son Adrian is at day care.

Casares, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop who teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, chose a very different path than his father’s. Here was a man, a living anachronism perhaps, who patrolled the border as a livestock inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a “tick rider,” for 34 years.

“He was on horseback until he was 69,” Casares says. “When I was a kid, I thought my father was the Marlboro Man. And he always identified himself as Mexican.”

Everardo Issasi Casares, who died in 2007 at age 93, plays an important role in Casares’ fiction, as does mom Severa, who is 87, lives on her own in Brownsville, and has recently discovered the magic of the cell phone. The whole large extended Casares family, all the tíos and tías and primos — and Brownsville itself — infuse every story.

“Brownsville,” Casares’ critically acclaimed 2003 debut collection of short stories, which includes “Charro,” about a neighbor’s feud over a barking dog, arises from the oral traditions of the Mexican-American family. (“RG,” which may be the most widely read story in “Brownsville” — taught in high-school and college courses across the country — is about a man angry at a neighbor who borrowed his hammer, years ago, and never returned it.)

Louisiana novelist Tim Gautreaux, author of “Welding with Children” and “The Missing,” noted that “Oscar Casares does for Brownsville, Texas, what Eudora Welty did for Jackson, Mississippi.”

“I didn’t read as a kid,” Casares says. “It was never on my radar to become a writer. Later, when it did cross my mind, I didn’t feel I had the background to be a writer. What I didn’t realize at the time was that what I had in my background was my uncles coming over to our house and telling stories.

“And what I came to realize, in writing my own stories, was that I was using a lot of the same techniques my uncles used. There was this idea that as you are telling this story, there is someone in front of you, that you are in someone’s living room, and they can get up and leave at any point, go to the kitchen, the bathroom. That part of it is something that has never left me.”

“Amigoland” (Little, Brown, $23.99) is the story of two old men, brothers 20 years apart, the oldest in his 90s. Don Fidencio Rosales, a retired postman, is confined to a walker in a nursing home, from which the novel gets its title.

Although he is breaking down physically, Don Fidencio is sharp mentally. . . well, mostly — his memory fades in and out like a distant radio station. The viejo can’t remember names, for one thing, so fellow inmates become The One with the Worried Face and The One with the Big Ones. His son-in-law, who put him in the home, is simply The Son of a Bitch.

Don Fidencio enlists the help of his estranged youngest brother, a retired barber named Don Celestino, to spring him from the nursing home and take him to Mexico. He feels compelled, before he dies, to visit the family ranch and prove, once and for all, the veracity of the oft-repeated story of their grandfather’s abduction by Indians.

“Amigoland” is a story rich in humor and sadness and truth and embellishment, full of life’s incalculable, unpredictable graces and missteps and inevitabilities. It is the story Oscar Casares was born to tell.

“It is based on the first story I ever heard,” he says, “the first family story, certainly, the story of how my family arrived in this country.”

In October 2004, when Casares was deep into “Amigoland” — it was partly written during a Dobie Paisano Fellowship — Everardo Casares fell and broke his hip.

“I spent the next three years, until my father’s death, in and out of nursing homes,” Casares says. “At one point I thought, ‘I can’t write about this objectively because I’m living it.’ ”

Brownsville is again a major character in the novel; Don Celestino, recently widowed, stumbles into an affair with his Mexican housekeeper, a much younger woman who comes to his home one day a week from across the border. Socorro accompanies the bickering old brothers to Mexico.

“After I left Brownsville, I came to appreciate how unique it was growing up there,” Casares says. “As a Mexican-American, you grow up there in this sort of bubble: We were the mainstream. You get the whole spectrum of people — the drug dealer was Mexican, but so was the federal judge. And I try to write these stories that get us beyond just being The Other. For me, it’s given me the opportunity to write about issues that are important to me, to us.”

Oscar Casares will read from “Amigoland” and sign copies of his books at the Twig Book Shop, 5005 Broadway, from 5 to 7 p.m. Aug. 17. And the author will be at the H-E-B Plus, 1150 N.W. Loop 1604, at noon Aug. 18.

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