An ode to, inspired by, or Western Unioned from the same morality-subverting center of its namesake’s films, Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino, Julián Herbert’s short-story collection, emerges from magical realism to crash the penumbra of the depraved. A photographer’s most gruesome work might be his unborn son. Smile! There’s a magnum opus in a conceptual artist’s mouth. Impersonate a literary great and make thousands of pesos to score crack. It’s obvious Herbert enjoys examining the corruption of his native land, Mexico—“there’s no human experience beyond the reach of a bribe” and “most Mexicans are genetically incapable of distinguishing between a criminal and a policeman”—and he excels at rendering memorable, oftentimes apologetic characters who dwell in tightly constructed worlds that feel weirdly unobjectionable and totally nuts at once.
Hedonism is somehow tender in “NEETS,” which explores the erotic in corporeal and discarnate realms and introduces a car-crash photographer whose “thing isn’t killing but the altered mental states arising from observation.” He also has an “HIV hooker thing,” and the HIV hooker happens to be his wife, salad advocate Vianey, whose pregnancy sets off a series of ominous hummingbird deaths. Together, they make gonzo porn. He worries their baby will have AIDS, too, or be an “exterminating angel” (an homage to Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film). The best line is his lamenting a former freedom from superstitions: “Something in the internal force of my second child is killing the symbols of the sweetness, velocity, and fragility of the world.”
“Caries” is dedicated to The Story of My Teeth author Valeria Luiselli, and it’s the most absurd of the collection. “One day Ramón Rigual discovered sheet music in his teeth,” the tale begins, and romanticizing eccentricities soon gives way to an earnest discourse on the id. Following a dentist visit, Ramón, a conceptual artist, searches the streets “in numb pursuit of the most profound of aesthetic experiences.” He gets it after arguing about art’s originality with regard to “appropriation, recycling, and pastiche,” and then discovering a molar-generated, brilliant symphony he titles “Caries.” It sends him into psychosis. Is his art authentic or a rip-off? Here, Herbert, like Luiselli, illuminates the importance of an artist’s own storytelling and how it forms his or her identity.
The phone and internet scam of hitting up Western Union to send funds to strangers? Esquivel and Prof are those strangers. In “M.L. Estefanía,” Esquivel, a border municipality mayor, masterminds a scheme to threaten women into sending him money by convincing his teacher-turned-crackhead friend, Prof, to pretend he’s the leader of an armed commando group. Prof narrates this story in first person, a clean voice that belies all the distortions drugs would induce. With perfect clarity, he admits of his transgressions, “My job gave me the same sensation I got from smoking rock: something close to ecstasy when I was holding in the smoke but absolute horror the moment I exhaled.” This grift comes after another; the pair traverse Mexico on a stadium tour where Prof convinces audiences he’s prolific writer Marcial Lafuente Estefanía with canny justification. He muses, “It’s not fraud: we’re working in the gray zone created by postmodern education and culture.”
Reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson, Herbert smartly partners bizarre characters with commentary on modern societal woes and how citizens react, like executioner-riddled Mexico City’s four-stage descent into a cannibalistic “carnicovegetal kingdom,” featured in “Z,” which feels like Fear and Loathing in World War Z. The brutal is the predilection and drug trafficking is theater in the title story, “Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino”; unsurprisingly, this is the most Tarantinoesque story. AK-47s, creative torture methods, and stripped and clipped dialogue round out an interwoven plot wherein a Coahuila drug lord, Jacobo Montaña (a nod to Scarface), has a film critic kidnapped while assassins go find Tarantino himself in Los Angeles. It’s OK: “…after all, it’s a rare privilege to be kidnapped by the evil twin of your favorite movie director.” Mexico’s most wanted and the critic, holed up in a well-appointed bunker, eat, analyze Vincent Vega’s primal urges in Pulp Fiction, and determine why Tarantino must get hit.
Herbert doesn’t do dull. His other seven stories, some more flash fiction like “There Where We Stood” and “White Paper,” are similar, where the seemingly mundane is transmogrified by an expert who ranks among other expert storytellers mentioned throughout this collection, such as Pedro Almodóvar, Samuel Beckett, and Étienne Mallarmé. But what’s most unforgettable about Herbert’s work is its unexpected, disarming poignancy.
Felice Arenas wrote Netflix synopses for a decade and about cinema and music for HuffPost before earning her MFA from New York University, where she taught creative writing and was a Global Research Initiatives fellow. Her work has also appeared in PoetsArtists, High Shelf Press, and more. Born and raised in Chicago, she has lived in Los Angeles, New York City, Brooklyn, and Shanghai.