by Erin Rubin
Written as a part of our Tiny Review Series
The King of Lighting Fixtures is a book to pick up over and over again; there’s always something fresh in its pages. Author Daniel Olivas has produced a collection of short stories all distinct from one another but tied together by wry wit and a sharp eye on humans’ talent for living in a self-created world.
The narrators’ voices are as varied as their subjects. In “Imprints,” Olivas credibly reproduces the energetic, voluble, no-nonsense literary agent; you can practically hear the click of her high heels and see her flashy sunglasses as she recounts her meeting with an editor. Yet even now, between rounds of drinks and dialogue that’s just a little bit outrageous (“God, Liz, you are a snob and so traditional”) the narrator reveals how she’s managed a complex identity in a precarious world. She can be smart-aleck and smart, with substance to back up the force of her personality.
Other stories hopscotch between luxurious high-rises and muddy backyards, from train stations to college bars and suburban sidewalks. Olivas shows mastery of various literary traditions: horror, romance, and memoir have their due, with an occasional splash of magical realism. The devil him- (and her-) self appears as a character in some tales and haunts the background of others. Several stories have a charming cuento quality, with folksy narrators who break the fourth wall of the story’s scene. (“I’m not quite certain if this old hombre has the palabras to express precisely what happened next,” one says. “Let me take a swig of my cerveza. Ah! That’s better...”) The title story is nearly 30 pages; another, 25 words. As varied as the stories are, each one feels complete, and completely unique.
There’s often a temptation with short stories to feel that because they are short, they must be profound and intense, like juice concentrate or vanilla extract. It leads readers to search for hidden meanings, and leads authors to be arch. Whether one writes short stories that way or not, that expectation can hang over a collection, but Olivas deals with it in his wry, clever, practical way, confronting the reader with the absurdity of expecting a life lesson from every vignette. “I will not give you the satisfaction,” he says. “I have better things to do with my time…Worse things happen in life. Really, they do. I promise.” We know they do; by this point in the book, we’ve already encountered at least two murders. Lest we stray into tempting abstraction, Olivas offers a reality check; sometimes we’re just watching strangers and speculating about their unknown lives. Olivas is a particularly acute watcher, and an imaginative speculator.
The author’s presence floats through the collection in a ubiquitous but unoppressive way. He’s like the top boss in a large office: his influence is everywhere even if someone else is running the meeting. A few of his characters are lawyers like their creator, and each story shows a keen eye for detail and precise language. Olivas himself appears in the title story, but only as the shadowy boss, sending an unnamed peon to collect interviews for a story the mysterious Olivas will write. (“A real pendejo,” says the interviewer; the subject protests, “Actually, he’s quite nice.”)
By turns funny and frightening, deliciously suspenseful and comfortingly homey, The King of Lighting Fixtures is a credit to its author and to its readers, who have no choice but to give into imagination and to the joys of this delightful collection.
Erin Rubin is a second-year law student at UCLA and the Managing Editor of LM Voices.