Orientation and Other Stories by Daniel OrozcoAisles

Swinging for the Fences

Orientation and Other Stories
by Daniel Orozco
Review by Brian Rozendal

aniel Orozco has a rare combination of talents. He writes ferocious prose and he's got great stories. In his first published collection, Orientation and Other Stories, Orozco grabs you by the collar with his startling humor, surprising plot turns, and remarkable variety of characters. This guy is swinging for the fences and hitting hard.

“Orientation” kicks off the collection, and it starts strong. It's an unusual satire of the banal employee orientation, told in second person by an eerily informed narrator who covers proper microwave use as well as intimate personal details of various co-workers. The story is fresh and funny—at least, at first. Just as the formula of clever quirkiness wears thin, the narration takes an insidious turn. It's an interesting choice and could work better if there were a stronger purpose for the shift other than variety. This is his signature move, and he does it remarkably well in other places, and for more compelling reasons.

“The Bridge” and “Hunger Tales” start strong, but the stories do the heavy lifting. The prose serves the plot, as in “I Run Every Day,” where the language conveys the narrator crossing the line from obsessive compulsive to sociopath. Orozco shines when he's anchored in more traditional storytelling, where he can fudge with the formula, and the following three stories do that well.

“Somoza's Dream” is by far his most audacious and ambitious, and it succeeds. It starts from the viewpoint of Somoza, the Nicaraguan president in exile, and the action quickly escalates to the moment of his assassination. Then, surprisingly, the camera swings from Somoza to his killers. A couple pages later it again shifts suddenly to Somoza's servant, who had set the ball in motion. This entry alone should be anthologized as an example of compelling storytelling, surprising character development, and unorthodox plot structure. There are still moments of self-conscious indulgence (rather than an unusual wind, it was a “zephyr that has come from nowhere on this still and windless day”), but when a story is this good, you're willing to forgive these little strokes.

Unfortunately, Orozco doesn't keep up the stamina. “Officers Weep” is framed as a series of police log entries that hint at a budding romance between a male and female cop as they respond to robberies, complaints, and domestic disturbances. The conceit would work well as a creative writing exercise, but here Orozco asks too much of his readers. It's hard to accept the carefree attitude of the officers, as they crack wise and make clever remarks about their calls. The report-log conceit wears out by the third page, right when you stop caring about the main characters.

The final two stories are a distillation of Orozco's greatness and his limitations. Delivered in three vignettes, “Temporary Stories” follows Clarissa Snow, the temp agency's “best girl,” as she fulfills various assignments that complicity involve her in eliminating other people's jobs. It's a clever and paradoxical setup—she becomes a cog in the machine that created her temp assignment. A patina of cleverness can grow dull, of course, but fortunately Orozco consistently invents quirky and believable characters, in this case a fussy, slightly overweight woman who ironically yearns to be a “permanent temp employee.” In contrast, “Shakers” has no central character or unified plot. It's a polyglot of description that uses an earthquake as a literary device to connect every sundry character under (or hidden from) the California sun. Orozco flexes his linguistic muscles here—in one paragraph he flits between marathoners in Death Valley, abalone divers at the coast, drug cookers in the Northern California pines, and a hiker trapped in a ravine at Joshua Tree National Park. It's a lot to digest.

Orozco's prose is as exciting as it is frustrating, though. You find yourself caught up in the uncanny microcosms he creates and the people you recognize in them. These are stories from a writer unafraid to ask a lot from his readers, and when he delivers, he delivers big.

In the fall issue, Brian Rozendal wrote about Alison Pick's Booker-nominated novel Far to Go.