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Houston Chronicle
February 20, 2004

A THINKING MAN'S MYSTERY
El Pasoan Sergio Troncoso takes philosophical perspective in new novel

By FRITZ LANHAM
Houston Chronicle Books Editor

Copyright 2004


"PHILOSOPHICAL suspense novel" sounds like an oxymoron. How many thrillers, really, rise to the level of philosophy?

OK, maybe Crime and Punishment would qualify. And as it happens, Dostoevski's epic tale of a poor student who ax-murders an old woman is the stone against which Sergio Troncoso struck flint in writing his own novel of murder and morality, The Nature of Truth, a book his publisher is billing as "philosophical suspense."

"I wanted to have a dialogue in many ways with Crime and Punishment and with Nietzsche," says Troncoso, a 42-year-old ex-El Pasoan whose philosophical pretensions are honestly earned: He has a near-doctorate in the field from Yale University.

The meaning of truth, the foundations of morality, the weight of responsibility -- all these feed into Troncoso's novel abbbout a Yale research assistant who discovers that his boss, a renowned German scholar, has a Nazi past and who persuades himself that a terrible act is the only morally correct response.

Troncoso, who will read Wednesday at Talento Bilingüe de Houston to kick off the sixth season of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, hopes the novel is stereotype-busting in several ways, beginning with its half-German, half-Mexican protagonist, Helmut Sanchez.

In a telephone interview from New York, where he lives with wife Laura, Troncoso said his own experience of not being entirely at home in any one culture finds expression in the book. Helmut "is weak because of his dual heritage, but he's questing because of it, too." For Troncoso, writing is a quest for self-identity.

The Nature of Truth (Northwestern University Press, 259 pp; $22.95) is Troncoso's first novel and second book -- he's the author of the short-story collection The Last Tortilla and Other Stories. He is very deliberately trying to extend the bounds of Mexican-American literature beyond what he calls "barrio stories and familia stories." Too many Mexican-American novels and stories have been "full of beautiful superficialities," he contends.

"They did not discuss the mind. They assumed poor people are stupid, have a lot of sex, have colorful families but are not thinking about God, morality. The mental life of Mexican-Americans, I thought, was often overlooked. I wanted to bring the mental life of the Mexican-American into stories."

Troncoso is at home in four languages (English, Spanish, German, ancient Greek) and has three Ivy League degrees, but his beginnings were modest indeed. He grew up in Ysleta, a colonia on the east side of El Paso. His father was a draftsman who later became a construction engineer. His mother was a homemaker.

The parents were recent immigrants from Mexico, and like everyone in Ysleta they were poor. They built their own adobe house, Troncoso's mother nailing down roof shingles, his father digging the hole for the backyard outhouse. The third child of four, Troncoso remembers living with kerosene lamps before electricity arrived in the neighborhood.

As a kid he was, by his own admission, "a fat little boy who was perfectly happy to be alone." Books were a great solace. In grade school he lived for the Fridays when the teacher would hand out paperbacks the class had ordered from the Scholastic Book Club.

Two important figures in Troncoso's early years helped guide him toward his vocation. One was his maternal grandmother, who had survived the Mexican Revolution, though not without shooting two men who tried to rape her. "She was a very tough cookie, but she was a great oral storyteller," Troncoso recalls. He would ride his bike into El Paso to spend the weekend with her, sitting on her porch and listening to her stories about Pancho Villa riding into some Northern Mexico town and hanging all the bankers and lawyers.

The other figure was his paternal grandfather, a prominent Juárez journalist, founder of the newspaper El Día and crusader against government corruption. "He was sort of a Woodward-Bernstein of Northern Mexico," Troncoso said.

His grandfather's example fired Troncoso's interest in journalism -- he wrote for his high school paper. His journalism adviser opened his eyes to the world outside El Paso and encouraged his ambitions.

But nobody from Ysleta High School had ever gone to an Ivy League college. With the encouragement of school counselors, Troncoso applied and was accepted. Actually he was accepted at both Yale and Harvard. Troncoso opted for the latter, where a cousin from California was already enrolled. He didn't even know where Harvard was. "In all honesty," he said, "I thought it was near Chicago."

Having successfully located Cambridge, Mass., on the map, he arrived in Harvard Yard in the fall of 1979. Not surprisingly, the adjustment wasn't easy. "Horrible" is the way Troncoso describes it. He almost quit during his first year. A lot of the problem was the pressure he was putting on himself not to fail. An "A" in his freshman expository writing class finally convinced him he could "do as well as these guys, as well as these rich kids."

He focused on political science and history, in large part, he said, because he knew nothing about Mexican and Mexican-American history. In El Paso he had not been a "minority." At Harvard things were different: "Suddenly I was brown against this white background." He was assailed by the perennial identity questions-- Who am I? Where do I come from? Much later, those are the questions the led him to fiction writing.

After graduating from Harvard he studied in Mexico City on a Fulbright scholarship. He read Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa. He also read Dostoevski and Faulkner. "I was going more into philosophical questions," he said.

He earned a master's degree in international relations at Yale, then switched to philosophy for his doctoral-level studies. He seemed headed for a dissertation on Aristotle's ethics and then a teaching career. But he was bothered by how arcane his academic interests had become and how they cut him off from other people.

He couldn't really explain to his parents, for example, what he was studying. He wrote his first short story, "The Abuelita," in order to communicate the moral and existential issues that preoccupied him in a way his parents could understand. Very autobiographical, it centered on an old woman facing death. Into it Troncoso wove gleanings from Martin Heidegger, pitting his grandmother's don't-forget-to-enjoy-life philosophy against the German thinker's rather more gloomy outlook.

A literary journal at University of Texas at El Paso published the piece, and Troncoso was encouraged. He continued to write short stories that tapped into philosophical questions while pursuing his academic studies. Eventually he completed his Ph.D. coursework and found himself at a crossroads: fiction or Aristotle?

He opted against the Stagirite. In 1993 he left Yale with a master's degree in philosophy and devoted himself wholeheartedly to novels and short stories. "It was a tough decision, but I did not want to be isolated," he said. "I wanted to be able to talk to my parents and my brothers and sister about what I was doing."

In 2000 the University of Arizona Press published The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, which won the Premio Aztlán and the Southwest Book Award.

His next book, a novel, is set in El Paso and New York. Naturally, it will have its philosophical themes, but Troncoso said to expect a "more romantic plotline."