(And Other Stories, 2017)
Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons is an odd book to contend with, regardless of circumstance—it’s a brief, fable-ish tale one experiences almost as much cinematically as literarily. Remember MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera? It compares a bit to that, by which I mean zero disrespect at all, but simply to note that both artistic products feel like a modernized update of an old form we take so much for granted we can hardly think of when we didn't know it.
Kingdom Cons is set in the present, but the tale’s robed in ancient affect. By way of characters, there's the Journalist, the Commoner, the Witch, the Girl, the Artist, the Heir, and the King; there are more, and they’re all characters, certainly, but as importantly, they’re figures, chess-pieces. Nearly everything in the book goes down at the Palace. It’s a clever, useful move Herrera makes throughout, even if it feels slightly facile: because each character is pegged as his or her Role or Title, there’s lots less work needed to develop character (ditto re: the Palace). It’s not a huge deal, but this is merely to note that you're not heading to Kingdom Cons to get richly developed characters. The only character the reader ultimately has a deep connection to is the Artist; the rest of the cast, largely, stays within their roles.
The old roles have been updated, however, so that the King is not the majestic monarch of yore but is, instead, king as in king-pin: he’s the center of a drug empire, and the folks working for him are all involved in the trade, in some way or another—enforcers, border-crossers, snitchers, etc. And the book’s tone is entirely legendary, epic. On meeting the Journalist, the Artist wishes to make a song for him (such is the Artist’s art: he makes corridos, epic songs for the members of the King’s coterie), but is rebuffed. “Better not,” the Journalist advises, “because if you paint my picture then I’m no use. Imagine: if people on the outside find out I’m on the inside, who's going to believe I don't know what's what?” This transpires on page 28 of the book, and here, we’re given the clearest sense of the book’s gravity: all these folks are bent toward the power of the King. In response to the Journalist, we get the following: “The Artist understood. He had to let the man do his job. In order to keep fools entertained with clean lies, the Journalist had to make them seem true. But the real news was the Artist's job, the stuff of corridos,” and perhaps, like me, you squirm a bit at the fact that the story is going to function not just as a fable, but that the way the story is crafted ends up being the novel’s central arc—and, further, that it’s uniquely within the realm of the Artist to be able to Tell the Truth (or the “real news,” appropriately enough). Perhaps, like me, you like your fictions to not show their seams quite so clearly, or you prefer to believe that work unscaffolded by fable’s structures feels more sophisticated. Obviously, I squirmed a bit.
But Herrera makes two significant moves that nullify the squirms. First, and most importantly, is that the novel simply doesn't give a damn about your own awareness of it: the story of the Artist (who, of course, is an orphan, has tremendous talent, impresses the King one night in such a way as to be invited into Palace, where a Girl is essentially given to him to take good care of him) plows forward almost fervently, with language as chatty (it's tho not though throughout, and the slang is dessert-grade delicious—the Doctor is “the Court's Numero Uno stitch-it man”) and as direct as rap music. Again, there’s more than a trace of the cinematic to Kingdom Cons: the narrative almost always finds a new frame to jump to once the current scene runs its course (the book is structured with dozens of fairly brief chapters—three to six pages, mostly). Plus—and this one’s harder to see but maybe more critical in terms of overall take-away—there’s the fact that this is emphatically the story of the Power of Art. It’s easy, while reading, to forget the title of the thing is Kingdom Cons, and the con of the title ends up having more wide-ranging roots than you would have maybe initially guessed. While the Artist believes he’s crafting the truth—is almost uniquely able to see the truth—there’s no hosannas at such a feat. Seeing the Truth doesn’t save the Artist, and the magnificence of one’s skill and craft re: the Truth cannot change destiny or meaningfully redirect the direction of the world.
This is me hesitating regarding the impossibility of that potential redirection. The quickness and brevity of Kingdom Cons—it’s barely more than 100 very fast pages—makes giving away its ending senseless: you can find out in less than two hours what happens. Suffice it to say that the squirm-inducing stuff toward the book’s start is more than overcome by the precision of the actual story: the King and his Kingdom do not last the book in the form they took at the start. The writing is as crisp as you could possibly hope for. Opening at random, here’s an excerpt from page 66:
He picked up on the wounded pluck of the girls who worked it solo and the apathy of pimped old pros; he understood the cold felt by the old codger on the floor, moaning but unable to ask for anything; and a sign for a lost little girl brought home the horror of being tortured by cowards. He recognized himself in an ashen boy coaxing squalid notes from a trumpet but could tell this kid had it worse than he ever did, because he had a littler one to look after, curled up on his back. The Artist had never had to look after anyone else.
At the end, you’re left with the deeply satisfying experience of having been given a story that is simultaneously surprising and something you've seen coming. It's a book that’ll take longer to process once it’s within you than it took to read in the first place, one of those rare pieces that’s larger on the inside than on the outside.