“Do you do book reviews?” I was conflicted when the publicist first asked me if I was interested in checking out the new book by Tucson Weekly columnist Brian Jabas Smith, Tucson Salvage (Amazon). Do I tell her that I studied literature in college? Do I tell her that for the first forty or fifty years of my life I dreamt of being a novelist? Or do I admit that I no longer read as much as I used to, mostly because I’ve acquiesced to the horrible feeling that I’ve read every book I’ve wanted to read?
That trepidation vanished once I opened Tucson Salvage and read the first couple of stories. Brian Jabas Smith does have a connection to music, having spent much of his life writing songs and fronting such bands as Beat Angels and Gentlemen AfterDark. He’s led the life of an itinerant musician, living all over the country, dealing with addiction, even flirting with real success as a “national class bicycle racer.” He returned to his beloved hometown, Tucson, where he dealt with his restlessness by jumping on his bike and riding around Tucson at night and talking to everyone, mostly those “Living on the margin.” Tucson Salvage is a collection of all those columns Brian Jabas Smith wrote for Tucson Weekly, each self-contained story a stunning portrait of fascinating people mostly ignored by the folks in the nice, safe Tucson neighborhoods.
Every portrait provides a point where you are locked in, stunned at the humanity and resilience of these sometimes ragged souls. There are the two Middle Eastern immigrants who came to Tucson to open 24/7 smoke shop on the wrong side of town, working those impossible hours between the two of them. There are the denizens of a camp for homeless vets that’s roughly the size of a Walmart. There are graffiti artists and reformed gang members and addicts going through methadone programs and MMA fighters and plenty of people with small businesses–everything from bars to liquor stores to rug repair shops–and each person has a story to tell, complete with an unexpected detail to confess that drops the barrier between the winners and the losers, the survivors and those who were unable to hang on.
Most of these tales are unusually compelling, but it’s Brian Jabas Smith’s prose that makes Tucson Salvage such an unforgettable read. He has a distinct style that is unusual for a non-fiction writer, a voice that’s as innovative as Truman Capote’s idea of the “non-fiction novel.” Smith truncates his sentences, sometimes omitting subjects and verbs in an economically dismissive swipe at the conventional. It would be a grave mistake to call this the best book I’ve read this year, since that number might be abysmally low. But I’ll tell you something–Tucson Salvage makes me want to buy more books, read more stories of real people, maybe even revisit Tucson with a totally different set of eyes. Highly recommended.
Final note: there’s a new documentary based on Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections from La Frontera. You can find out more at www.tucsonsalvage.net. More on Smith at his website.
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