The following is an excerpt from Toni Sala's short novel The Boys, translated by Mara Faye Lethem and out November 10 from Two Lines Press.
The novel opens in the once-bucolic Catalonian village of Vidreres. Ravaged by a harsh recession, the town now has to come to grips with the death of two of its young men in a horrible car crash. The selection below follows one of the novel's four principal characters, a brutish trucker who, in between Internet hookups and trips to prostitutes, has taken a liking to the fiancée of one of the dead boys.
He yawned, let his pajamas drop to the floor, and put on the sweater he’d worn the day before, with wisps of hay still on the elbows. It was eleven in the morning, and he had been up past five chatting online with a girl in Seville, a nice set of jugs if the photo was actually her—and if not, whoever was typing in her name had good taste, they’d chosen a very warm, summery photo. Even though now it was winter, the girl in the picture wore a red tank top, the sides open in wide ovals from the shoulder to the waist, with no hint of a bra, the neckline revealing incredible orbs of flesh that lifted the fabric. The best jugs on the market. If they weren’t hers, they must have been chosen by a man or a lesbian. But that didn’t matter, you went online to be altruistic, to find and offer generosity, to forgive from the get-go, to give yourself over to the gratuitousness of a limitless, empty planet devoid of responsibility—created by man, though, and therefore not infinite, just beyond your reach. The Internet didn’t have nature’s independence; tied to humans, it could only be fantasy up to a certain point. And it contained a world of altruism—you could be talking to the scum of the earth, to the worst criminals, serial killers, and terrorists, bad people who, if they caught you in the forest, would crush you without thinking twice—but that’s just how the Internet is, it redeems and purifies them. And how many imposters do we come across every day without even realizing? Who wasn’t covering up their belly, the folds we want to hide even from ourselves, since we can’t go around showing them? But if all you get from the imposters is a sham, what sham are we even talking about? The mask is the truth, they don’t cheat you on the Internet: whores who don’t charge aren’t whores.
He posted different photographs depending on the day, out of generosity. He used the name “Miqui” so he felt more identified with the photos, and he updated them depending on his mood. He had folders full of faces to choose from. The best photo was of an executive with very short blond hair and a gleaming new shirt. Chicks drooled over guys like that. It had taken him months to find a photo that fit his personality so well. Our outsides and our insides never match up. The earth is a chaos of seven billion outer shells and seven billion personalities; faces never perfectly fit their owners, souls and bodies do their own thing; the dead, the living, the young, and the old in a tangle of locations and moments, all chaos and orgy. Who was that blond jerk whose face Miqui’d swiped? What country was he from? What year was the photo taken? Maybe the blond was bald now. And what if that exact blond guy had a personality that matched Miqui’s face? What if the blond guy’s personality—from inside Miqui’s shell—was punching and kicking at the walls of his prison of a face? Who knew what son of a bitch was wearing the blond guy’s façade. Who knows whose boobs those really were or what kind of narcissist hid behind the sweet smile of the waitress at the social club yesterday.
They can do face transplants. They transplant the whole kit and caboodle: the forehead, eyebrows, eyelids, nostrils, cheeks and lips, moles, chin. They resuscitate the dead face for the blank head of a poor wretch who’s lost his. They take off what’s left of the old face, file down the bones, and slip a new face on like a sock. The transplantee washes it every morning in front of the mirror. He’s the same, he just looks different. His face sweats or is cold like always, it itches or it stings, he feels the sun beating down on it, he feels the rain falling on it. He gets blackheads, inflamed pimples, his beard grows…but wait a second: whose beard is that? His hairs and his tears go through someone else’s skin. If it’s a woman who receives the transplant, who does she put her lipstick, eye shadow, foundation, and sunglasses on? More masks atop the mask. Her boyfriend doesn’t know who he’s caressing. Who’s he kissing if he kisses her on the cheek? The flayed skull of a cadaver buried a thousand kilometers away. And when he kisses her on the mouth, whose lips does his tongue slip through?
There’s a whole business around it. They bring faces from far away, just in case, but they can’t bring them from too far off, from some continent with other races; for example, they can’t put an Asian face on a European body. But the faces travel to and fro, there are markets, they organize swaps and fairs on sporting fields, with stands filled with faces, butcher shops of masks, wholesale or retail—How many would you like, doctor? That makes a kilo—and right now trucks like his, filled with faces, drive down the streets, roads, and expressways. There are stockpiles of faces traveling on planes, trains, and boats. In portside warehouses, containers filled with faces wait for a semi to come pick them up. Flesh masks hang on hooks in refrigerated rooms beneath clinics and hospitals, surgeons handle them with surgical gloves, spin them on two fingers like pizza dough to air them out so they’ll give a bit as they’re sewed on the head. There are catalogues of masks, categories, supply, demand, swaps… You like this one? It’ll suit you perfectly. Would you like to see the photo of its previous owner to get an idea of what you’ll look like?
The young widow from yesterday. The fiancée of one of the accident victims. She goes abroad on vacation. Walking alone down a street, she sees a familiar face. It can’t be. Her heart skips a beat. It can’t be. The face smiles at her. Her lover’s face on a stranger’s body. Surprised to see her looking at him like that, the boy comes over and speaks to her in English.
Who do the faces belong to? And the bodies? Whose are they?
The blond executive’s mug was the best one he had, but he changed it as easily as—depending on his mood—he changed the picture in his mind of the person whose fingers typed the words that appeared on his screen from some corner of cyberspace. Quick replies filled with good intentions and good vibes emerged on the luminous pond of the screen amid an exasperating chaos of multicolored ads and last-minute offers for porn sites and online sex shops, cyber casinos, airlines, shops that sold tires and spare truck parts, antivirus programs, video games… In the midst of that mess of invasive little pop-up windows, there was an oasis of altruism and warmth, of serenity and trust, a tear in the fabric of selfish demands.
What’s wrong, Miqui?
You really think so?
Do you want me to explain what happened to me?
I understand, Miqui.
I’m so sorry, Miqui.
Life’s a bitch.
We all have our moments.
Tell me, Miqui, I want to know.
Words climbing out of the abyss, company. The screen flickered like a star at the heart of a dark room in an apartment on a carless street in Sils, a fading star, around which the room’s furnishings slowly revolved, the unmade bed whose skirt dragged on the ground, the chair with a mountain of clothes to iron and fold, sleeves and pant legs hanging between chair legs, the cardboard box with the empty cans from the beers he occasionally got up to get from the kitchen…the cylindrical basket with the overflowing bag of dirty laundry…
The small table was another orbiting planet, with the unplugged clock radio, green lamp with a burnt-out bulb, and little drawers that he never opened filled with coins, cards, pens, maps of cities he’d traveled to a thousand years ago, papers, photographs, and torn concert tickets… There was a poster the mechanic had given him pinned up right beside the window with its blinds drawn, a blown-up photo of the latest model of a Mercedes Atego, red like his, and with a crane and a cargo bed, but his was already twenty years old. The mechanic must have thought he could buy it, that he’d fall in love and do anything to have it; he must have taken him for a truck nut, crazy for engines. Miqui knew a few guys like that. The mechanic must have thought he’d ask for a loan—not that they’d give it to him—because his Atego was a wreck. He was always having to fix it, one patch over the next, and the mechanic had told him he could buy a new one with all he spent on repairs. Sure, he had thought. In my next life. The Atego’s nose stuck out from the middle of the stretch of wall, through a frame of white thumbtacks… The poster was curling slowly, puffing out slightly like a shifting sail, a carefully maneuvering truck…
The closet’s open door was like a dissected wing, lined with photographs of top models, the most attractive faces of ten years past, which had yellowed in the photographs; they’d dried out on paper just as they’d dried out in real life, expired models, past their sell-by date… And on the top shelf of the closet there was a case with a shotgun inside, above the bar of empty hangers—he only had two shirts hung up, two ridiculous shirts he never wore—the case was half hidden amid a pile of notebooks and textbooks from high school, a dinged trophy he had won in a school literary contest, and a racket…
When he was feeling good he would post the photo of a tennis player with curly hair, a guy younger than him, damp with sweat after winning a game, with two days of beard growth, clean, smiling, sporty. In his best moments, Miqui felt like that. It was like pulling back a curtain and discovering himself improved. He would confess after an endless chat session, once the chick convinced him to meet up to have a coffee or go to bed together. Then it was time to say, “I’m not the guy in the photo,” but the conversation had already gone too far for her to really mind, and she would convince herself that she didn’t really care; anyway, the photo she’d posted wasn’t her, either. Or it was her but twenty years ago, or looking taller and more attractive, or with longer hair. On the web, everyone was very generous.