The Beaumont Book Beat: Week of November 16

The Shoeshine Boy by Melvin Sterne

Melvin Sterne writes ‘The Shoeshine Boy,’  a literary science fiction novel set in the Texas borderlands

Review by Katherine Hoerth

When you first open The Shoeshine Boy, you’ll be pulled into the Texas/Mexico borderlands in the 1920s, a world of cartels, violence and poverty. The Shoeshine Boy will keep you questioning what’s real, what’s imagined, and ultimately, what it means to be human.

Part literary novel, part action thriller, and believe it or not, part science fiction, this captivating novel was published this summer by Lamar University Literary Press right here in Beaumont. It chronicles the life of an orphan shoeshine boy, Pablo, as he survives on the streets of Cuidad Juarez and El Paso. We see Pablo go from powerless child to a street-hardened kid, then to a full-fledged member of the Mexican mafia. Pablo has it all, but to obtain it, he has to do some morally questionable things, and he’s deeply troubled by the life he’s led thus far.

About halfway through the novel, Pablo meets a curious visitor from a mysterious and unknown land that makes him question everything he knows about life and the nature of humanity. Their experience together changes the course of Pablo’s life. What could happen to a man that would make him give up his power, his money, and set out on a journey of self-discovery? I won’t give that part away, but it’s a plot twist that’s so unbelievable, you just might think it real.

Melvin Sterne, the author of The Shoeshine Boy, has some serious Texas roots. He’s from El Paso, and his prose makes it clear that he really has a feel for the setting and a sense of place. You’ll hear the gunshots, feel the hot Texas sun on your shoulders, and stare up at the wide-open desert sky at night. Sterne’s writing has the power to transport his readers to different parts of or world and beyond.

What’s most riveting about this book, though, isn’t necessarily the plot twists, the unbelievable events, or the moments of thought-provoking, almost philosophical prose. Sterne gives readers a masterpiece of character development. Pablo’s 180-degree character change is so believable – his voice so authentic, his emotions so genuine. Sure, he’s a kid that grew up on the streets of Cuidad Juarez, but Sterne creates such a relatable character in Pablo that as a reader, I couldn’t help but see myself in him, too. And that’s what makes the impossible, otherworldly, outlandish circumstances in The Shoeshine Boy seem so incredibly real.

At the end of the book, Pablo is left to answer for his life’s deeds and finds some sense of atonement, though certainly not in the way one would expect. He’s left staring up into the sky, looking for meaning among the stars, for redemption, and for the long-lost friend who changed the course of his life.

If you read The Shoeshine Boy, you are in for a wild ride through the Texas borderlands and far, far beyond. Be ready to witness murder. Be prepared for love and romance. Get set for moments of pure wonder. It’s a read that is both enjoyable and insightful. I couldn’t put it down; I needed to know what new crazy situation Pablo would find himself in next. This novel will appeal to fans of thrillers, action, science fiction, and yes, literary fiction.

Sterne is also the author of Zara, a novel set in India, and The Number You Have Reached, a collection of short fiction. He holds a Ph.D. in creative writing from Florida State University and presently teaches writing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He came to academia later in life, though, and spent over twenty years working in construction jobs all across the United States. When I first read The Shoeshine Boy, I knew it was perfect for Lamar University Literary Press because of its wide appeal to a diverse readership. It’s one of those books that keeps readers thinking long after they put it down. I’ll never forget Pablo, his curious tale of his curious life, and the important lessons he’s left me with. I am excited to share this book with readers in southeast Texas and beyond!

The Shoeshine Boy is available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble for $18.95.

Lamar University Literary Press publishes literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction right here in Beaumont. The press specializes in Texas and regional authors and has won numerous awards. Check back for the latest news on publications and literary happenings in Southeast Texas.

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