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The Shortlist - Fiction in translation

Author: Alison McCulloch
Newspaper: The New York Times
Date: Feb 16 2017

Punches, profanity and streams of offbeat argot fly from the first page of this idiosyncratic debut novel about a Mexican immigrant living on the edge of the survival in an unnamed American city. Maybe 17 and "skinny as a shoelace," Liborio has suffered enough hardship for several lifetimes, including a near-fatal border crossing, a brutal cotton-picking job and a raid by a band of "migrant-hunting gringos". When the novel opens, he's working in a bookstore for a boss with a penchant for vulgar verbal abuse and is madly in love with the giri next door.

Xilonen, a novelist and filmmaker from Mexico, was 19 when she wrote the book, and the prose, with all its madcap neologisms, has a youthful wildness, rather like Liborio when his blood's running hot in a street fight. And it's his talent for dishing out and taking beatings that ultimately offers him salvation, and a little bit of fame, via the boxing ring.

The novel's language can be distracting ("passiflorally" speaking, but not in a "wlobalicidal" way) and the profanity wearing, but this book won't be shelved among the "dull novels" frequently excoriated by Liborio, who is reading his way through the bookstore and has strong opinions about literature - opinions that one suspects hew closely to those of his creator. Those dull books "Were fettered by the superficial task of effectuating sentence after sentence, soulless, lifeless, simply tossing out pretty words right and left. That's how I imagined writers thread their novels together, wormy, airless, disemvoweled."