THOUGH HER LITERARY PRODUCTION includes stage plays; a story collection, The Last of the Menu Girls (1986); and a memoir, A Taco Testimony: Meditations of Family, Food and Culture (2006) — much of which is geographically set in southern New Mexico, within earshot of the Mexican border — the world-making skill of Denise Chávez shines most brightly in her novels, Face of an Angel (1994), Loving Pedro Infante (2001), and, most recently, The King and Queen of Comezón. Set in the fictional towns of Agua Oscura, Cabritoville, and Comezón, respectively, the three novels take their cues from the Mexican adage “pueblo chico, infierno grande” (small town, large hell), which speaks to the way an intimate community, appreciated for its quiet climate, shared values, and comfortable familiarity, can just as easily become afflicted by malicious gossip, jealousy, and the insufferable claustrophobia of small-town mentality. Chávez highlights the good and the bad of these Mexican/Chicano working-class spaces with her trademark edgy humor and tough love.

The setting of Face of an Angel is El Farol Mexican Restaurant, where Soveida Dosamantes, an experienced head waitress, guides the reader through the labyrinth of stories and lives of her extended family. From the dishwashers to the cooks to the owner, everyone takes their turn beneath the spotlight, transforming the restaurant into a boiling pot of desires — repressed, unfulfilled, clandestine, burgeoning. Examining the complexities of her co-workers (and of her immediate family) through the lens of the traditional Catholic values that shape, guide, and limit their behaviors allows Soveida to articulate a response to the life lessons that surround her by writing a waitressing handbook she proudly calls The Book of Service. As a newcomer’s guide to the profession, it is part instruction manual and part survival guide addressed specifically to young women about to set off on a lifelong journey of labor, womanhood, heartbreak, and love: “Life is a great big face, with all the markings of our history on it. These wrinkles are my hardness and my silly worries, my lies and my unspoken words. They are the work I do and the things I left undone.”

To illustrate that she’s not defined by her job and that she’s more than a waitress/life coach, Soveida highlights stages of her own compelling story by providing glimpses of her autobiography (written when she was only 12), her college papers (professor comments included), and love letters from former sweethearts and husbands. The multivalence of her character mirrors the rich and complicated cultural center that is the Mexican restaurant, which becomes, by the end of the novel, a kind of church where many worship and serve. This reach for the restaurant-church parallel also explains why the novel is structured around the orders of angels in the Catholic theological tradition.

The tension between proper service and compliance to the teachings of the Catholic Church (and patriarchy) is cleverly examined by the growing bravado of Soveida’s inner strength, and its consequences. Although she eventually arrives at an empowering conclusion (“Nobody can love us the way we need to love ourselves”), it takes place after a string of troubled relationships, and a lengthy struggle with self-doubt, depression, and disappointment. And yet, despite the fact that she rises to the occasion as the wise woman of experience, Soveida is painfully aware that this is a precarious existence still subject to the ever-present threat of silence:

My grandmother’s voice was rarely heard, it was a whisper, a moan. Who heard?

My mother’s voice cried out in rage and pain. Who heard?

My voice is strong. It is breath. New Life. Song. Who hears?

Nonetheless, that devastating knowledge doesn’t stop her from speaking — from writing herself into visibility.

Although the overall tone of the narrative comes across a bit somber in its realism, Chávez makes plenty of room for comic relief, particularly in the testimonies of many of Soveida’s co-workers, who step forward to offer contributions to The Book of Service, which are sometimes excuses to vent or cast aspersions on other colorful citizens of Agua Oscura. But the greatest impression is made by the transformation of El Farol from a typical Mexican restaurant into a living cultural archive whose key ingredients are language, history, memory, and religion.

If a Mexican restaurant can channel the rich yet double-edged nature of Mexican/Chicano culture, then why not a Mexican icon? That is certainly one reason for the obsession two single Chicanas have for becoming active members of the “Pedro Infante Club de Admiradores Norteamericano #256.” Club member Irma “La Wirms” Granados declares: “You can learn so much about Mejicano culture, class structure, the relationships between men and women, women and women, men and men, as well as intergenerational patterns of collaterality in Pedro’s movies.” Club secretary Teresina “La Tere” Ávila is more instinctive: “Just watching him on the screen makes my little sopaipilla start throbbing.” What they share with an entire continent of fans is a deep admiration for the most famous Mexican singer-actor whose untimely death left an emptiness that has been passed along from one generation to another in the form of an irremediable pang.

What Pedro Infante becomes for Tere and Irma is an unreachable standard since the men Infante portrays onscreen are nothing like the men they meet at La Tempestad Lounge, the local watering hole that at one point pushes Tere into an existential dilemma:

You think if you ever have to sit at a table again with Irma and her man-hungry tuerta cousin, Graciela Vallejos, one brown eye going this way, the other half-green going that way, looking desperately for a Man — you might just as well walk out to Highway 478 and lie down on the road until someone with a flatbed of jalapeños comes by to run you over.

Unlike Soveida Dosamantes, who is a seasoned middle-aged woman, Teresina Ávila, in her thirties, is caught between idealism and desperation. And if Face of an Angel charts one woman’s hard-won journey toward the wisdom of self-love, Loving Pedro Infante, which reads like a fast-paced confession, charts a woman’s clunky sex-driven path toward the serenity of self-respect, though it too is a hard-won journey, particularly for the reader who must witness the quirky but likable Tere make one terrible decision after another.

At the heart of Tere’s story is her on-again, off-again romance with an abusive married lover, Lucio Valadez. Though he doesn’t appear to possess the charm and charisma of any of Pedro Infante’s manifestations onscreen, which might help explain her attraction to him, this underscores Chávez’s point — that the single woman, flanked by societal and cultural pressures, becomes susceptible to the follies of projection, self-deception, and a lack of self-esteem. It’s not until Tere acknowledges that Lucío (or any other man in Cabritoville) is no Pedro Infante that she’s able to recognize that she doesn’t have to play the leading lady from the 1950s — a passive damsel in distress.

Coming to terms with small-town living is not an act of resignation for Soveida and Tere, nor is it the same as admitting they live small lives — on the contrary: Soveida’s creative powers and Tere’s inventive language amplify the visions of themselves in communities that, despite conventional thought, do make room for such larger-than-life imaginations. And that’s the biggest compliment Chávez gives the tiny towns that most travelers simply gloss over on the map.

In her most recent novel, The King and Queen of Comezón, Chávez introduces readers to the aptly named pueblito Comezón — that “itchy little town” — which like El Farol is also bursting with unfulfilled or suppressed desires. Though a parade of characters steps forward to bear witness to their stories of lust and love, the king and queen in question are Arnulfo Olivárez, the town’s unofficial mayor and master of Mexican holiday ceremonies, and his wheelchair-bound daughter Juliana. Over the span of the five months between Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day — in which time is measured in storytelling, not calendar dates — Arnulfo and Juliana, much like Soveida and Tere, will have to make peace with the turmoil of their private lives.

Arnulfo’s secret is that he’s dying of cancer, which sets him on a lengthy soul-search through every public space in Comezón, particularly El Mil Recuerdos bar, which is where most of the men come to get drunk and become sentimental philosophers: “We come into this world esquintles crying out and leave it the same way, clutching for a teta, some teat to calm us down. What was it that would bring him peace? Loving and being loved could be that balm; maybe it could still be his healing.” He seeks to atone for his past transgressions by admitting to them and by owning up to his troubled marriage with his beloved Emilia, “La Gorda.” Somehow he needs to take control of his life at the very end of it.

Amusingly enough, the bar is not the only place Chávez wills the men to demonstrate vulnerability — she includes the intimate man-to-man exchanges that take place over secretive meetings (like the “Society of Enlightened Naked Men”) over shared interests (like poetry) best kept between two men. Chávez has fun toying with these bromances bordering on romances as a critique of the mask of machismo. But the women are not spared Chávez’s biting wit and candor, especially Juliana, a character whose sexual urges and inventive fantasy life, couched within religious expression, allow her to be free of her disability.

Juliana’s heartache is that she’s in love with the priest Padre Manolo, a classist Spaniard resentful of having to minister to “the so called New World and [its] ragtag gaggle of brethren.” Though their surprising mutual attraction is never consummated, there is plenty of irreverent doublespeak over Catechism lessons and over-the-phone confessions, which functions as the next best thing. It appears that the two most asexualized citizens of Comezón have found a way to scratch their particular itch. And like her able-bodied half-sister Lucinda, Juliana too plots to run away with her beloved — a possibility that Padre Manolo leaves suspended in midair when he finally leaves Comezón, promising to come back for her. It’s clear Juliana has fallen for one of the oldest clichés in romance, yet it’s an itch no one imagined for her, and it’s hers now, enough to keep her going.

As in her previous novels, the cast of characters in The King and Queen of Comezón is extensive, varied, and entertaining. Everyone from the Olivárez domestic Isá, “the old pockmarked mare of a helper [Juliana] called La Caca behind her back,” to the enigmatic drug lord-cum-poet Don Clo, to Chamorro the hairless dog gets to weave their personal histories into the intricate tapestry of small-town life — no one’s public narrative unfolds in isolation though each nurtures an interiority that is a world of its own.

The lesson learned by the end of the novel as Arnulfo prepares to preside over his final fiesta is that

a comezón exists in most everyone’s heart and memory — which is really the same thing — a lost love, a never-found love, a love rejected or accepted, a love known but then strayed, a found love not known, a place, a thing, a goal, tangible or not, a lover, alive or not, dreamed or not, a phantom always loved.

It’s a sentimentalized position but given that he knows these are his last days on earth it’s understandable. Unlike Padre Manolo, who considered Comezón “the flaming, itching culo of the universe,” Arnulfo’s Comezón — Chávez’s Comezón — is a wondrous place where even those who have lost their health, their wealth, their youth, and their beauty hold fast to their appetites, libidos, and pleasures that make life worth living.

There are countless laugh-out-loud moments in the writing of Denise Chávez, though this humor is not without its gravity, which keeps her characterizations from becoming cartoons and the dramatic situations from slipping into slapstick. Speech is textured with language that’s simultaneously naughty and compelling. What all three novels also have in common is that Chávez privileges the construction of a panoramic portrait of small working-class towns over the development of plot. But what she lacks in storyline she more than makes up for with the memorable citizens who appear so ordinary on the outside, yet turn out to possess such rich and extraordinary interior lives. On that score alone The King and Queen of Comezón is an exquisite addition to Chávez’s distinguished body of work.

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Rigoberto González is the author of 15 books and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He’s on the executive board of the National Book Critics Circle and is currently professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. He lives in New York City.