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A Thousand Stories, Brilliantly Collapsed In 'Bulletproof Vest'

Maria Venegas' memoir Bulletproof Vest opens with the story of her father's near death at the hands of would-be assassins in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. He's shot while returning home from a bar, collapses near his house, losing blood, dying, until a neighbor happens upon him during a walk. When Maria's sister calls to tell her the news, the young writer doesn't even look up from her lunch menu. "Oh. So, is he dead?" she asks.

As it turns out, he's not — but his luck runs out eventually, and he dies on the same stretch of road years later. By that time, his daughter Maria has come to terms with him, almost — and the man whose life was dominated by violence embraces the sensitive, bright daughter whom he abandoned. The road to their reunion — "reconciliation" seems a bit too pat, a bit too optimistic — isn't easy. It's that difficult journey that Venegas chronicles so originally, so beautifully, in Bulletproof Vest.

When it comes to families, and so many other things, there's no such thing as one story. There are only multiple stories, each with a thousand different layers and perspectives, and trying to weave them into something coherent is as close to impossible as anything else in literature. Bulletproof Vest doesn't just address Venegas' relationship with her father, but so many other things: her development as a writer (and, even more essentially, as a human being); the murder of her older brother when she was a child; her relationship with her devoutly Christian mother; and the history — related to her by her father — of her parents' relationship.

Running through the whole narrative is Venegas' struggle to define herself — no easy task for anyone, but one that's even more difficult for her. She's an immigrant living in a suburban Chicago neighborhood where Mexican-Americans are discriminated against, misunderstood by the few people who even bother to acknowledge them in the first place. Administrators at her school accuse her of leading a gang, and even as she excels at academics, her school's faculty members seem skeptical of her ability to succeed in college.

These stories run parallel and otherwise, and Venegas doesn't present them in chronological order. She switches perspectives and timeframes, sometimes suddenly, writing one chapter entirely in the second person. It's a risky move for any writer, and it's something like a miracle that Venegas pulls it off as perfectly as she does. Her narrative shifts aren't just bold; they're necessary — with every story, every chapter, she finds the perfect way to relate it. It's often uncomfortable, and the reader senses that's the point.

Bulletproof Vest is difficult. It's an emotionally raw book. Reflecting on her father's near death by gunmen, Venegas writes what must be one of the hardest things for a person to admit: "I'm indifferent to whether he lives or dies. ... I'm certain that it's only a matter of time before his past catches up to him, before he turns up dead, and I've decided that when that call comes, I will not shed a single tear."

And as amazing as that emotional honesty is, it's the brilliantly executed narrative structure — the stubborn refusal to give in to established perceptions about the memoir — that makes the book truly amazing. It's likely Bulletproof Vest will be taught in college classes for years to come, not just because of its brutal and heartfelt prose, but because of its technical brilliance. There are more than a thousand stories in this book, each one holding the others up and collapsing in on themselves. It's a stunning achievement, and it proves, beautifully, what the memoir can be.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.